A disinfectant spray is shown.
Some disinfectants require a contact time of 3 minutes or more to maintain their efficacy against viruses. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

There’s a lot of emphasis on proper hand-washing techniques these days.

Twenty seconds, soap and water. Thorough washing between fingers, under nails, backs of hands.

Simple enough.

But before the heightened public health message emerged a few weeks back, what did your typical hand-washing episode really look like? Maybe 5 to 10 seconds under the faucet, with a dollop of soap?

Among its many effects, a pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate routine habits, challenging fundamental notions about cleanliness, social interaction and personal self-care.

There’s yet another area that could use a bit of scrutiny: disinfecting surfaces.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes some important distinctions between cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing.

Sanitizing lowers the number of germs or viruses to a safer level, but it doesn’t eradicate them.

If you’re looking to kill the virus that causes COVID-19—eliminate it from your kitchen countertops, touchpoints, steering wheel, whatever—you’re ideally aiming to clean, disinfect and then clean again.

You can use household bleach—1/3 cup per gallon of water—or a 70% alcohol solution. (There’s plenty of research on use of alcohol and bleach in cleaning and disinfecting.)

“Most common disinfectants are effective against the COVID-19 virus, including those containing bleach, alcohol, chlorine compounds, phenols, hydrogen peroxide and quaternary ammonium,” said Adam Caulfield, PhD, director of microbiology with Spectrum Health.

The EPA has a list of specialized cleaning agents deemed effective against the virus that causes COVID-19. The bulk of them are name brand products you’re familiar with.

But it’s not as simple as spraying and wiping.

“The manufacturer includes a contact time—the amount of time a surface must remain saturated with the disinfectant to reliably kill all bacteria and viruses present,” Dr. Caulfield said. “This time is typically mentioned on a product’s label—and it’s often longer than many people realize.”

It’s important to read the instructions on the product you’re using. The listed contact time allows the product to kill viruses and bacteria.

How much time? As it applies to some viruses, anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes.

Consider one popular brand: Lysol. (Here’s a list of the Lysol products deemed effective against the virus that causes COVID-19.)

To disinfect a surface, the Lysol instructions read, “Surfaces must remain wet for 3 minutes, then allow to air dry.”

To kill norovirus, hepatitis A virus, adenovirus 2, fusarium solani and mycobacterium bovis BCG, the surface must remain wet for 10 minutes, then allowed to air dry.

So if you’ve been spraying and wiping clean, you’ll want to reconsider that process. You also need to spray enough material to keep the surface wet for the recommended duration.

The CDC recommends using detergent or soap and water to clean a dirty surface before you disinfect it. After you’ve cleaned and disinfected the surface and allowed it to dry, you can use a water wipe to remove any residual chemical, Dr. Caulfield said.

Researchers have learned the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel surfaces and up to 24 hours on cardboard.

In targeting areas to disinfect, focus your efforts on frequently touched surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, countertops, light switches, handles, phones and faucets.