Skip to content

Rutgers expert gives advice on homemade cleaning products during pandemic

Robert Laumbach, a Rutgers occupational and environmental medicine expert and associate professor at the School of Public Health’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, said homemade disinfectants may not throughly decontaminate surfaces. 
Photo by Courtesy of Robert LaumbachRobert Laumbach, a Rutgers occupational and environmental medicine expert and associate professor at the School of Public Health’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, said homemade disinfectants may not throughly decontaminate surfaces. 

Store shortages of cleaning and disinfecting products during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic have led many people to make their own. It is generally fine to create different cleaners, but not disinfectants, said Robert Laumbach, a Rutgers occupational and environmental medicine expert and associate professor at the School of Public Health’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute.

Cleaners remove dirt, viruses and bacteria, while disinfectants kill the viruses and bacteria, Laumbach said. People can visually assess the effectiveness of their cleaners, but not their disinfectants, he said.

“There’s two ways that they can be harmful, these DIY (do it yourself) cleaners,” Laumbach said. “One is you might create a harmful product and the other is that it might not be effective for disinfection.”

Laboratory tests must be conducted to verify disinfectants’ ability to kill germs, and common DIY disinfectants have not demonstrated such ability, according to a Rutgers Today article. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using Environmental Protection Agency-registered household disinfectants, alcohol solutions with at least 70 percent alcohol or diluted household bleach solutions.

To make a bleach solution, the CDC recommends mixing five tablespoons or one-third cup bleach per gallon of water or four teaspoons bleach per quart of water. Laumbach said it is important to dilute bleach to prevent eye, nose or throat irritation.

“Sometimes people think, well, if a 2 percent solution of chlorine bleach and water is effective, then 100 percent just using chlorine bleach must be 50 times as effective,” Laumbach said. “But actually, it's no more effective, and it can potentially hurt people, either if you’re breathing the vapors or through skin contact. So people should wear gloves when they handle any type of disinfecting product and try to avoid the vapors.”

People with asthma or other respiratory conditions should take caution due to bleach’s potential to exacerbate their symptoms, but whether they should avoid bleach ultimately depends on individual experience, Laumbach said. 

Chlorine bleach should only mix with water and never with ammonia, vinegar, alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, he said. Mixing chlorine bleach with the latter chemicals can produce toxic substances, he said.

“Anytime people mix different chemicals together, even if they're natural chemicals or ‘green’ chemicals, there might be chemical reactions, and people should use caution and do an investigation: Look it up on the internet, make sure that there are no items out there about not mixing what they're about to mix together,” Laumbach said.