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Always follow proper safety guidelines when using cleaners and disinfectants.

ALABAMA A&M UNIVERSITY, Ala. – Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, people are paying close attention to the surfaces that they contact. The terms cleaner, disinfectant and sanitizer have found their way into daily conversations. It is important to know not only what products to use but how to use them safely. Many cleaners and disinfectants registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have active ingredients that are harmful to humans, animals and the environment when improperly used.

“It is critical that we understand the difference between cleaning and disinfecting,” said Karnita Garner, an Alabama Extension environmental specialist. “Also, we must use precaution and sound judgment when doing both.”

Effects of Improper Use

Using cleaners, disinfectants or sanitizers improperly can have major consequences. Chemicals, such as bleach, can irritate the eyes, mouth, lungs and skin. Also, many chemicals have harmful effects on small children, individuals with respiratory illnesses and pets. This makes it all the more important to properly use and store these products.

Garner said improper use can have other effects that people may not realize.

“Some bacteria and viruses actually play positive roles in human, animal and environmental health,” she said. “Improper use of certain products could potentially harm good, beneficial organisms. Improper use could also contribute to the growth of disinfectant-resistant microbes or antibiotic-resistant diseases.”

Using Products Safely

As a general rule of thumb, people should limit their exposure to cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing products, including children and also pets. Always keep them stored out of reach of children.

It is recommended to wear gloves, eye protection and sometimes face masks when using certain disinfectants. Having good ventilation in the area the chemicals are being used is also an important safeguard against toxic fumes.

Garner said there are some alternative products that people can use.

“Those with asthma or other respiratory illnesses can consider using hydrogen peroxide-based cleaners approved by the EPA,” Garner said. “These cleaners are alternative solutions to those containing bleach or more harmful substances.”

While antibacterial sanitizers may seem harmless, this is not the case. Some hand sanitizers contain alcohol concentrations as high as 95 percent, which is comparable to alcoholic beverages.

“Ingesting sanitizer solutions can result in alcohol poisoning that requires immediate medical attention,” Garner said. “In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using the same caution with hand sanitizers as with any other hazardous products.”

Safety Guidelines

Garner offers the following safety guidelines when dealing with chemicals.

  • Labels. Before using, check the expiration date and read all product labels and safety data sheets. Look for the EPA registration numbers on the label. Follow the product contact times, concentrations and application methods to ensure product effectiveness. If the product calls for dilution, follow recommendations exactly.
  • Safety. Wear disposable gloves and wash hands immediately after removing the gloves. Clean dirty surfaces with soap and water prior to disinfecting. Never mix household bleach with ammonia, acid or any other cleanser. Store products in their original containers away from children and pets. If using a diluted solution, clearly label it if removed from the original container.

More Information

More information about cleaners and disinfectants is in the content piece Coronavirus: Using Safe Cleaners and Disinfectants. For more information, contact your county Extension office.

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