Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
En español | Months into the coronavirus pandemic, shelves once stocked with everyday household cleaning products remain picked over — or worse, bare — in retail stores across the country.
Antibacterial wipes and disinfectant sprays are a rare sighting, and multipurpose powders, tablets and foams can be just as difficult to track down. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) July 6 announcement that two Lysol sprays were proven effective in lab testing to kill the novel coronavirus on surfaces hasn't helped matters. AARP has heard from many members nationwide indicating that the two Lysol sprays are all but impossible to find online or at local retailers. (The EPA later announced on July 30 that 13 more products have received the same stamp of approval for their ability to eliminate the virus in lab testing.) All the while, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces as a way to protect against a coronavirus infection. So what's a person to do?
Focus less on disinfecting, more on handwashing
If you can't get your hands on cleaning products, switch your prevention strategy and, instead, focus on your hands. After all, frequent handwashing is “the most effective way to break the chain” of virus transmission from contaminated surfaces, says Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
When it comes to cleaning and disinfecting — especially high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and light switches in schools and offices — “it's really difficult to clean and disinfect enough,” Allen says. “To really eliminate the hazard, you'd have to clean and disinfect every single time someone touched something. Well, that's not practical; it's not feasible. And it's also not the right strategy. The better strategy is when people come into the building, they wash their hands and use hand sanitizer,” and they continue to do so throughout the day.
Also: Don't forget about additional prevention measures, such as keeping at least 6 feet from others and wearing a face covering in public. It may be possible to catch the virus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes, the CDC says. But experts think you're more likely to catch it from respiratory droplets exchanged during close contact with an infected individual.
Hundreds of cleaners work against the coronavirus
Lysol Disinfectant Spray and Lysol Disinfectant Max Cover Mist were the first disinfectant products to receive EPA approval for their proven effectiveness in killing the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) on surfaces in lab testing. Thirteen additional products, including Lysol Disinfecting Wipes and 12 products from manufacturer Lonza, have since received the same EPA approval, bringing the total number of approved products to 15. But there are other cleaners out there that are presumably just as good of a match against the virus that have yet to undergo lab testing. In fact, the EPA has a list of more than 460 products that meet its criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2, and the agency expects more of them will receive its official approval in the near future, once lab testing results are submitted and reviewed.
If you're faced with only one type of surface cleaner or disinfectant at the store, “I would bring that choice home,” says Diane Leichter, director of Infection Prevention and Control at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “Any disinfecting wipe will probably remove most of [the virus] from a surface and kill most of it on a surface” — especially if you clean first with soap and water, which is also what the CDC recommends.
"Remember that cleaning and disinfecting are separate steps,” and that cleaning a surface with soap and water “goes a long way toward removing most germs,” Leichter adds.
If you still can't get your hands on one of these products, the CDC says a simple bleach-and-water solution (4 teaspoons of bleach per quart of room temperature water) will do the trick. Alcohol solutions with at least 70 percent alcohol may also be used. Just remember: When cleaning, always follow the instructions on the label to ensure your personal safety and the effectiveness of the cleaner. Some products, for example, have a longer drying time than others, and wiping a surface down with a towel before that time is up could make the cleaner less powerful.
Many Americans have dangerously misused household cleaning products during the pandemic, CDC data show. This has led to an uptick in calls to poison centers across the country. To avoid health hazards, wear skin protection and make sure you use cleaning products in well-ventilated areas. Finally, always store and use chemicals out of the reach of children and pets, the CDC advises.
What's behind the disinfectant shortages?
There are a number of reasons why the U.S. is experiencing a shortage of cleaning supplies, says Tom Derry, chief executive officer at the Institute of Supply Chain Management. “Probably the biggest is we're seeing this incredible surge in demand for these kinds of products,” he adds.
Sales of aerosol disinfectants were up 148.3 percent during the week ending March 28, compared with the same week last year — that's right around the time stay-at-home orders went into effect in several states. Multipurpose cleaner sales spiked 84.6 percent during that same timeframe, according to data from Nielsen.
"And companies in the short term and on short notice don't physically have the ability to reconfigure their manufacturing lines or to create new manufacturing lines to add capacity to meet the higher level of demand,” says Derry, who also points to shipping and production delays overseas where many raw materials are sourced.
The “stock up” mentality brought on by the pandemic has also contributed to ongoing supply shortages, says Saurabh Bansal, associate professor of supply chain management at Penn State University. The advice from public health experts has been to limit public outings as much as possible and to keep essential items on hand, especially if you are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
However, when customers start shopping every two weeks instead of weekly, for example, their purchases essentially double, Bansal points out. “If companies don't take that into account, if they keep on replenishing the same amount of stuff week after week, then essentially what is happening is that the same stuff is now going to only half of the customers because they have increased their basket size, which means that the first half of the customers end up buying the product, and the second half of the customers don't see the product on the shelf,” he says.
Figuring out this new purchasing pattern takes time for stores, Bansal explains, and not all retailers have done a good job with it.
When will stores be restocked?
Major brands, including Lysol, have acknowledged the “unprecedented and accelerated demand” for their products, and have said in statements that they are working to resolve them. Reckitt Benckiser, the maker of Lysol products, did not respond to AARP's requests for comment about the supply shortages. The Clorox Company, the maker of disinfecting wipes and other cleaning products, declined to comment for this story, but in an early August earnings call told analysts that the company likely won’t be able to meet the demand for its cleaning and disinfecting products until 2021.
Even so, it may still be a little while before you see a steady stock of common cleaning supplies in stores. Martin Dresner, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Maryland, says it will likely take “a change in circumstances” to bring demand back down to a point where stores don't sell out of disinfectants right away. He expects that time will come when fears of future lockdowns ease and COVID-19 case counts start to decline.
Save 25% when you join AARP and enroll in Automatic Renewal for first year. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
In the meantime, the shortages for products made by big companies have created an opportunity for smaller businesses to break into the market, Derry says. So be on the lookout for new brands that may be just as effective when it comes to fighting the spread of the coronavirus, including hand sanitizers made by local distilleries and craft brewers.
Another thing consumers can do in the wake of ongoing shortages is preorder groceries and household supplies online for curbside pickup at their local store. This essentially gives the store an advance order and removes an element of uncertainty in the supply chain, Bansal says.
"And when that happens, it benefits everybody. It benefits the stores because they know how much they need to stock without incurring the holding cost, and it benefits the customer because the customer is more likely to get the product that they want.”
Editor’s Note: This story, originally published July 22, has been updated to reflect new information.