Do Green Cleaning Products Really Protect Against Viruses?

First things first: let’s talk about a few of the terms we’re using. Since there is no legal definition of a “green” product, we’re going by the Green Seal standards for household cleaners for the purposes of this article. For a product to be Green Seal certified, it has to meet safety standards for toxicity, carcinogens, biodegradability and volatile organic compounds, among other things.

Next, it’s important to understand the distinction between a cleaner and a disinfectant. The CDC defines cleaning as the physical removal of germs, dirt and other impurities from a surface. A disinfectant actually kills germs on a surface. The best way to help ensure your spic-and-span surfaces are sterile? Go at them first with a cleaner, then follow up with a disinfectant.

Some common green cleaning products, like vinegar and tea tree oil, are not recommended for fighting coronaviruses, but luckily several products that meet Green Seal standards made the cut. Keep in mind that “green” doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t hurt you or make you sick. When you’re using a disinfectant, follow the label directions for safe use, and use proper protective gear including gloves and eye protection when appropriate. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that, as a best practice, you pay attention to the contact time found on the product label directions, which is the amount of time the surface should be visibly wet. And remember, these products are for use on surfaces, NOT people.


 Green solutions that may be effective when used properly are:

  1. Citric acid
    Citric acid is a naturally occurring product that can be used as a disinfectant, sanitizer and fungicide. It’s found in certain plants and can be extracted from citrus fruit and pineapple waste. It can also be produced on an industrial scale by mold-based fermentation of molasses. For use as a disinfectant, the contact time is 5 to 10 minutes.

  2. Hydrogen peroxide
    Hydrogen peroxide was first registered with the EPA as early as 1977 for use as a disinfectant, sanitizer and sterilant. When it’s used on a surface, it breaks down pretty quickly, leaving behind only oxygen and water as residue! How’s that for green? The contact time for hydrogen peroxide is relatively fast — depending on the concentration, it can disinfect a surface in as little as 30 seconds up to 10 minutes.

  3. Ethanol
    Ethanol, an active ingredient found in aliphatic alcohols, is a well-known and commonly used disinfectant. You can add it to aloe and make hand sanitizer or spray it on a hard surface to disinfect and sterilize (although you shouldn’t use it on polished wood furniture or rayon fabrics, and you should avoid getting it on foods, drinks, feeds, or surfaces they may contact). It’s also a virucide, fungicide and mildewcide. This chemical was first registered as a disinfectant with the EPA as early as 1948 but has been used to sterilize and disinfect as far back as the 14th century. The contact time for ethanol is 30 seconds to 5 minutes, depending on the concentration.

  4. Thymol (thyme oil)
    Thymol, or thyme oil, is a naturally occurring mixture of compounds in the thyme plant. It’s an active ingredient in pesticide products registered for use as animal repellents, fungicides/fungistats, medical disinfectants, tuberculocides and virucides. Thymol has been a registered disinfectant with the EPA since 1964. The contact time is 4 to 10 minutes. 

  5. Glycolic acid
    Glycolic acid is derived from plants like sugar cane and sugar beet. It’s been used as an antimicrobial cleaner to disinfect and sanitize hard non-porous surfaces, and it’s approved by FDA as an indirect food additive for use in food-packaging adhesives. It’s also widely used in the cosmetics industry. It was first approved for use by the EPA in 2001. The contact time for a glycolic acid cleaning solution is 10 minutes.

  6. Lactic acid
    Lactic acid is a naturally occurring chemical that’s found in the roots of common vegetables. It was registered with the EPA for the first time in 1988 and is generally recognized as a safe ingredient in food, but in high concentrations and cleaning solutions, it’s recommended to use gloves and eye protection. The contact time for lactic acid is 30 seconds to 10 minutes.

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