Green(ish) Disinfectants

If you’ve read our last blog post on the dangers of chemicals in conventional cleaning products, then you’ve hopefully taken steps to eliminate these toxins from your home. That’s great! But in the age of COVID-19, what about safe disinfecting?

First, a crash course in the difference between cleaning and disinfecting:

  • Cleaning removes dirt, along with bacteria, viruses, and fungi—collectively called “germs”—from a surface. By reducing dirt and germs, cleaning also reduces the risk of spreading infection. However, cleaning does not actually kill germs, and any germs left behind remain active.
  • Disinfecting actually kills germs, when done properly. Since disinfecting does not actually clean, surfaces should first be cleaned and then disinfected to kill the remaining germs and reduce the risk of spreading infection.

Disinfecting is especially important during These Uncertain Times™. Unfortunately, as disinfectants are designed to literally kill microbes, there is no such thing as a real “green disinfectant.” Some are less toxic than others, but many of the safer ones have not been adequately tested with regards to COVID-19. Your health should remain your top priority. There’s really no point using green products to save your health in the long run if you run the risk of acute COVID-19 damage now. So even if you have implemented a green cleaning program at home, you may have to use a disinfectant with chemicals that you usually avoid.

Because when it comes to killing COVID-19, green products might not be enough. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released a searchable database (List N) of products proven to be effective against the coronavirus. This list contains few green cleaners. This doesn’t mean they don’t work, just that they haven’t been tested yet to prove their effectiveness. More studies are needed, but, in the meantime, it’s safest to stick to disinfectants that have been approved for the coronavirus.

Some of these are safer than others, and you can always check the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning for product safety ratings. As always, avoid fragrances and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). For disinfectants, avoid phenolics and sodium hypochlorite, which is harmful to the skin, respiratory system, and ecological environment.

The use of quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats, is a little more controversial. They can be toxic if inhaled, are known to damage genetic material and cause birth defects, are poisonous to marine life in waterways, and may result in resistant bacteria that are even harder to kill. That being said, the toxicity dose is pretty high and you’re unlikely to reach it with regular home disinfecting. They’re effective and less harmful than phenolics, so some people swear by them.

But the two greenest categories of disinfectant are based on alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.

“Alcohol-based products are probably the greenest that we can get that have been shown to be effective.”

- Cassandra Quave

Alcohol, also called ethyl alcohol or ethanol, is one of the safest disinfectants. Alcohol-based disinfectants rarely contain added chemicals like fragrances, and alcohol itself causes fewer health concerns than many other disinfecting chemicals. Keep in mind that you need 70% alcohol for disinfecting, so drinking alcohol is not appropriate. (Save that for Zoom happy hours!)

Hydrogen peroxide is a safer alternative to chlorine-based bleaches. Since it’s essentially composed of water with an extra water molecule,  it breaks down into just water and oxygen and is therefore kinder to surfaces, the environment, and your own health. Hydrogen peroxide is light-sensitive and should be stored in a dark bottle or a closed cabinet.

Other active ingredients that work as general disinfectants during normal times include citric acid, lactic acid, caprylic acid, and thymol. Their effectiveness has not been tested against COVID-19, so for now you should prioritize alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide a thorough guide on how to clean and disinfect for COVID-19. The main steps include:

  • Wear gloves to protect your skin.
  • Clean before you disinfect, as soil and grease interfere with germ-killing abilities.
  • Use disinfectants in well-ventilated environments, opening windows and employing fans, to avoid toxic chemical building
  • Since no disinfectant is truly “green,” limit your applications to necessary high-touch areas like doorknobs, light switches, phones keyboards, and faucets.
  • Spray or wipe the disinfectant on the high-touch areas.
  • Allow a dwell time of minimum five minutes. Alcohol and hydrogen peroxide do not need to be rinsed at all.

With proper washing, soap is even more effective than disinfectants, because soap dissolves the virus’ fat membrane. The best way to protect yourself and others is through frequent hand washing, social distancing, and wearing a mask.


The EWG screened hundreds of disinfectants recommended by the EPA and and CDC and compared them against their own Guide to Healthy Cleaning to compile a list of 16 disinfectants that are effective against COVID-19 with few ingredient concerns. This list includes:


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


David Suzuki Foundation


Environmental Protection Agency

Environmental Working Group

Green Matters

The Washington Post

UCSF Institute for Health & Aging, UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, Informed Green Solutions, and California Department of Pesticide Regulation. “Green Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting: A Toolkit for Early Care and Education.” San Francisco: University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing, 2013.


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