The 2 Things You Should Be Sanitizing Every Day to Avoid Getting Sick

We asked the germ experts if we really need to be wiping down our groceries (spoiler: they said no).
Image Credit: Adam Radosavljevic / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages

With the threat of COVID-19 still out there and flu season ramping up, you may be wiping down anything and everything that enters your house, including food, mail and packages, as well as those high-touch items where germs are likely to hide (like your phone, purse, wallet and keys).

But while spraying your bananas with Lysol may seem like a necessity, it's not actually doing you much good.

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"We know now that the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets or aerosols from someone infected," Jagdish Khubchandani, MBBS, PhD, professor of public health at New Mexico State University, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Unless you're working in a very high-risk environment where you have direct exposure to COVID-19, like an ICU, it's not really necessary."

Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Here's what you need to sanitize regularly and religiously, and what you can skip.

1. Your Smartphone

Your phone, like your hands, is a germ magnet, says Charles Gerba, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Arizona.

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Case in point: A study Gerba published in June 2017 in the journal Germs found that up to 80 percent of our phones contain potentially harmful germs such as staphylococci (the bacteria that's often behind food poisoning).

This is true even if you regularly use a headset: "Since most phones have touch screens, germs can easily spread from your phone to your hands, which can trigger infection if you touch your face," Gerba explains.

The good news is as long as you use a screen protector and don't dunk your phone into any liquid (or let any seep into its charging ports), then regular disinfection is safe, he notes. But always check the manufacturer's website beforehand. Apple, for example, says on its website that it's OK to use 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipes or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes on its products, but to avoid bleach.

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Gerba recommends you take the following steps:

  1. Unplug your phone.
  2. Swab it down with either a lint-free cloth slightly dampened with soap and water, or an alcohol wipe (Gerba prefers the latter). Avoid sprays or cleaning solutions, since they can contain bleach or other abrasives or seep into openings.
  3. Do this several times a day, including each time you come in from outdoors.

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There are also some things you can do when you're out and about to minimize your phone's exposure to germs, Gerba adds:

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  • Keep your phone in your pocket or purse instead of carrying it around in your hands (and setting it down on things like store counters and tables).
  • When you are shopping, use a written shopping list instead of one on your phone.
  • It's also a good idea to use a hands-free device when making calls, so your phone isn't pressed up against your face or mask.

2. Your Face Mask

If you have a disposable mask, you should throw it away after each use, says Gerba. Cloth masks should be washed every day after use.

The first step is to take it off safely:

  1. Wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
  2. Don't touch the front of your mask. Instead, remove it by grasping the ear loops or untying the ties.
  3. If your mask has filters, remove them and toss them in the trash.
  4. Fold the outside corners together, and stow it in a safe place like a plastic baggie (don't throw it into a purse, where it can come into contact with your other personal items).
  5. Be careful not to touch your eyes, nose and mouth when you remove it. Wash your hands again immediately afterward.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it's absolutely fine to include your mask with your regular laundry. You can toss in your usual detergent, but set the water to the warmest appropriate setting for the cloth used to make the mask. Dry it completely in the dryer using the highest heat setting.

If you're washing by hand, you'll want to use a bleach that contains 5.25 to 8.25 percent sodium hypochlorite. And be sure to check the label of the product you're using to see if your bleach is intended for disinfection — some products, like those designed for safe use on colored clothing, aren't.

You can also make your own bleach solution: The CDC recommends mixing one-third cup of 5.25 to 8.25 percent bleach per gallon of room temperature water. Soak the mask in the bleach solution for five minutes (make sure you're in a room that's well ventilated, as inhaling bleach can irritate your mouth, nose and eyes), then discard the bleach solution down the drain and rinse the mask thoroughly with cool water. Lay the mask flat on a surface, and let it completely dry.

Why You Don't Really Need to Worry About Other Items

Since the early days of the pandemic, you may have been sanitizing everything in sight. But here are some items you don't have to worry about, says Khubchandani:

  • Keys
  • Wallets
  • Headphones
  • Glasses
  • Clothes
  • Groceries
  • Mail

Initially, there was a lot of concern that COVID-19 could survive for a while on surfaces, and thus get you sick. An April 2020 study published in the The New England Journal of Medicine found evidence that the virus can live on plastic surfaces for up to three days and on cardboard for about 24 hours.

But what we know now is that "the virus degrades rapidly during this time," Khubchandani says. "The amount of virus detectable on all of these surfaces drops greatly after a few hours — for example, only trace amounts of COVID could be found on cardboard after four."

Now, he adds, it appears that the novel coronavirus survives best on smooth, hard surfaces like counters or doorknobs. Other evidence suggests that the virus doesn't survive as well on softer surfaces, like fabric, either.

"We know that viruses like COVID are much less infectious when they are dried out, and fabrics are more likely to absorb water from a virus," notes Khubchandani.

Instead of rushing to Lysol all these items, Khubchandani recommends washing your hands every time you return from outdoors, open mail or unpack groceries (if you're using reusable shopping bags, wipe them with disinfectant or launder them before you put them away).

Otherwise, "the three best ways we know to protect ourselves against germs like COVID-19 are cloth face coverings, social distancing and frequent hand-washing," says Khubchandani. "It's the easiest, and most research-proven way to stay safe."

Concerned About COVID-19?

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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