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Can a steam cleaner kill the coronavirus? Here’s how to stop the spread of germs with home appliances

One way to stay healthy and prevent the spread of germs and viruses is to keep your house clean, particularly if you have had an illness in the house

Trying to stop the spread of germs has come to the forefront recently with the spread of coronavirus, with people going to extreme measures to try and avoid in the infection.

The important thing to remember with coronavirus is that as it’s so new, there’s very little testing that’s been done to show what’s the most effective way of combatting it. For that reason, we’re focussing on general cleaning tips that can sanitise your home and keep it spotless using technology. (Don’t forget to also look at our guide to the best vacuum cleaner).

Where possible we’ve linked to current advice surrounding generic advice and the latest coronavirus information. For the latter, the picture is constantly changing, so look out for NHS and government guidance on what’s best and treat this guide as one for the best ways to keep your house clean.

Cleaning vs disinfecting

The first thing to understand is what the difference is between cleaning and disinfecting. Cleaning concerns removing germs from a surface but doesn’t kill them. Disinfecting means to kill the germs.

For example, washing your hands with soap for 20 seconds or more under running water will wash a virus away; using a hand sanitiser that is at least 60% hand gel can “help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others”, according to the CDC.

Health organisations recommend a two-part process, starting with cleaning and then disinfecting. For cleaning, you should use disposable cloths that can be thrown away. Otherwise, washable cloths, sponges and mop heads need to be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected after use.

Bleach, mixed to the right quantities as shown on the instructions is a good disinfectant, although you can buy premixed disinfectant that’s designed to kill most common germs. Don’t assume that these will kill coronavirus: Dettol has put out a statement explaining how existing products have been effective on existing strains of coronavirus:

“Specific Dettol products have demonstrated effectiveness (>99.9% inactivation) against coronavirus strains from the same family as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) in third party laboratory testing when used following the directions for use. These products are Dettol Antibacterial Surface Cleanser Spray, Dettol Antibacterial Surface Cleanser Wipes, Dettol All-In-One Disinfectant Spray, and Dettol Disinfectant Liquid.”

Using a steam cleaner

Heat treatment has proven effective in killing past viruses, particularly in areas where you may not be able to use detergent, such as for soft furnishings. The Government advice on cleaning COVID-19 says, “When items cannot be cleaned using detergents or laundered, for example, upholstered furniture and mattresses, steam cleaning may be used.”

This sentence also points out a useful element of steam cleaners: they don’t require detergent to work. Instead, they use water that’s heated and turned to steam, so can be used anywhere you have a tap and running water, which is handy if supplies of cleaning fluids are running low, or you simply can’t get new cleaning products.

Steam has often been highlighted as a good way to decontaminate areas. After the norovirus outbreak, the UK produced a guide on cleaning cruise ships to prevent infection, including cleaning carpets and upholstery using steam at a temperature of at least 70C.

Note that the advice mentions upholstery and mattresses, but doesn’t talk about hard surfaces. This is because the advice is that hard surfaces should be cleaned with detergent and then disinfected with chemicals to fully clean them. That’s not to say that steam cleaners can’t be used on hard surfaces, as a way to kill germs and to clean without using detergent.

However, if you want to follow best practice, it makes sense to clean your floors and other hard surfaces using detergent first, and then to follow up with the steam cleaner as a second option. Just remember that there are no official guidelines on this as a cleaning and sterilisation routine, although this technique will give you a deeper clean than just using detergent or just using steam.

There’s also a big difference on how effective a steam cleaner is depending on whether you’re using a standard accessory or a steam mop (or mop accessory). One of the reasons that steam cleaners are so effective is because the full steam temperature output is directed at the cleaning surface, and can penetrate and access gaps and cracks in surfaces. However, this is only true if you’re using a regular steam cleaner, where the steam output is directed out of the nozzle. These types of steam cleaners (cylinder and handheld), often have cleaning attachments, such as brushes, but these don’t typically affect performance, as you get a shot of steam first, and the attachment is then used to remove dirt.

Karcher has commissioned some research to see how its cleaners can deal with viruses and bacteria. It has said that “if used properly, the machines remove up to 99.999% of enveloped viruses, such as the coronavirus or influenza, and 99.99% of common household bacteria from hard surfaces.” The research goes on to say that tests have shown enveloped viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes the disease, COVID-19, can be killed by high temperatures.

Karcher used the Modified-Vaccinia-Ankara-Virus in its laboratory-certified test, which is representative of enveloped viruses, and found that when used with spot cleaning of 30 seconds at maximum steam level, the virus was deactivated.

As you can see from this, the most important thing with these products is to use the steam cleaner close to the surface that you’re cleaning. Steam loses temperature fast as it moves through the air, so if you’re a long way from the surface, you make the cleaner less effective.

Using a steam mop is different, too, as the steam is directed into the microfibre cleaning cloth, which absorbs much of the heat, preventing it from transferring to the floor. As such, you’re not getting the full disinfecting effect that you would if you could use steam directly. Steam mops aren’t a lost cause, though. The heat generated helps loosen dirt and germs, which are picked up by the microfibre cloth.

Not that microfibre merely collects germs, rather than killing them. There’s a good chance that the steam from the cleaner will disinfect your cloth, but you should wash all cloths at the highest temperature they’ll take after use to disinfect them. Remember, don’t use fabric conditioner with microfibre.

In all cases, it’s important to use the steam cleaner for the right amount of time, as you must kill germs thoroughly. A simple swipe through will most likely not provide enough of a clean. How long you clean for depends on the temperature of the steam that you’re using, with higher temperature steam cleaners able to do a job faster. The advice from WebMD for cleaning up after an illness is to expose upholstery to steam for at least five minutes at 70C or one minute at 100C. Our selection of the best steam cleaners can help you find a suitable model.

Karcher SC 4 EasyFix Steam Cleaner

What is it safe to use a steam cleaner on?

As steam cleaners use pressured steam to clean, they can be used on a surprising number of surfaces, but not all. If you’ve got anything that’s sensitive to heat and/or water, then you may not be able to use a steam cleaner. For example, avoid using a steam cleaner on anything that can be damaged by water or heat, such as painted surfaces; delicate items, such as silk; and porous surfaces, such as brick or marble. Also be careful using a steam cleaner on oiled wooden floors, as this can damage the surface protector and cause water to enter the wood and make it expand.

That all said, you can use steam on pretty much all other surfaces, including laminate floors, tiles, grout, sealed worktops (quartz, etc.), sinks, baths and glass. You can also use steam on carpets and upholstery, although it’s worth testing on a small area that’s out of sight to see if there are any detrimental effects before you carry on.

You can also use steam on areas where traditional detergents can’t be used or may cause problems, such as upholstery, but also curtains, which often can’t be washed in a regular washing machine (or wouldn’t fit in many cases). Just remember that you should steam for the suggest time, based on the temperature of your cleaner and that hard surfaces should still be thoroughly washed with detergent in order to give you the deepest clean.

How to clean a hard floor or carpet

Cleaning your floors is an essential part of keeping your home clean. For hard floors, rather than simply mopping, which can spread germs around, using a device such as the Karcher FC 5 Hard Floor Cleaner is a better option. This product sucks up the dirty water into a separate tank, removing dirt from the floor, so the clean water is never mixed with the dirty. This process also leaves the floor almost dry.

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In comparison, when using a mop, it’s recommended that you have two buckets: one with detergent and one for rinsing, so that you don’t contaminate the cleaning bucket and further the spread of germs. Mopping also leaves a floor much wetter.

Remember that using the FC 5 with detergent won’t kill viruses. However, you can use this product with any cleaning solution, including disinfectant, provided it doesn’t contain ammonia or bleach. To avoid damage to the machine, you may find it easier to clean with general detergent and then to mop afterwards with a disinfectant.

For carpets and upholstery that can be cleaned with liquid, you can use one of our best carpet cleaners. Again, carpet cleaners are good, as they pump out clean water mixed with detergent from one tank, and suck up the dirty water into a separate tank, preventing cross-contamination. To kill viruses, like the coronavirus, you should use them with a carpet shampoo that has anti-viral properties, or clean once and then use a carpet-safe disinfectant afterwards once the carpet is dry.

Washing soft furnishings and clothes

For clothes, curtains, washable sofa covers and the like, the current government advice for coronavirus is to wash items at the highest temperature that they will take. You can also use steam if you have a washing machine that lets you add this to a cycle but still wash at the highest temperature that you can. Our list of our best washing machines will help you find a new model if you need one.

The more generic NHS advice on how to stop germs spreading says to wash items at 60C to avoid germs, or at 40C with bleach. Check your care labels carefully before washing to avoid any damage.

Washing dishes

Current advice for dealing with dishes is to use a dishwasher where possible. Using one of our best dishwashers means that you don’t have to physically handle anything while you’re washing, and the machine will do a more thorough job, rinsing at the end of the cycle. In terms of coronavirus, there’s no specific information on the setting to us, but given that general NHS advice for clothes is to wash at 60C, it would make sense to use the same or higher temperature setting in a dishwasher. Typically, dishwasher eco settings will be lower than this (often around 50C), so use one of the standard or higher programmes where you can.

If you can’t use a dishwasher (or don’t have one), you can wash up by hand. Wear rubber gloves and wash dishes in hot soapy water, leaving them to air dry before use.

Related: Whirlpool WIO3033 DEL

Dealing with glass

Our homes typically have a lot of glass surfaces, from shower screens to mirrors and windows. A standard window cleaner with a cloth has the same problems as using a mop on the floor. A window vacuum, such as the Karcher 10 Year Window Vac Anniversary Edition is effective a wet vacuum cleaner that sucks up the left-over dirty water off of glass and into a separate tank. This makes it faster to get good results, with dirt more easily being removed from the glass surface. Don’t forget that many steam cleaners also come with a glass attachment, which you can use to help disinfect the surface after it’s been cleaned with detergent. Again, you should remember to clean the area for the required time period to do a thorough job.

Karcher 10 Year Window Vac Anniversary Edition vacuuming window

As with other surfaces, the advice remains to clean first and disinfect second, and this goes for cleaning windows. In the absence of disinfectant that you can use, windows can also be cleaned with a steam cleaner following the advice above. Remember, any cloths or squeegees that you use on a window should also be disinfected, either with sprays and chemicals or, for cloths, using a washing machine.

Clean regularly and thoroughly

The important thing with maintaining a deep clean is to do the job thoroughly and often. It’s important to pay attention to areas of higher use where viruses and germs may persist. For example, door handles in your home will be touched as you go in and out of the house and about your business. Likewise, anything else that you touch regularly, such as a fridge or tap should be treated with care.

There’s no confirmed length of time that coronavirus lasts on surfaces, although reports have said that it can last for 24-hours on cardboard and up to two or three days on plastic and stainless steel. The research will come, but it makes sense to assume that anything introduced to your home could be a source of contamination. So, if you go out shopping (or have a delivery), and put bags down on a surface, it makes sense to clean up that specific area to stop the spread of germs.

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