photo of wet wipes
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Not Reading Directions

Some wipes, like the kind made with benzalkonium chloride, are only approved to kill bacteria. They might not work as well on viruses. Wipes with “disinfectant” on the label should kill bacteria, viruses, and mold. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) keeps a list of approved disinfectants on its website. Check the product’s label for the EPA registration number.

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photo of sink
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Drying Surfaces Too Fast

They should stay visibly wet for a little while. The amount of time depends on the product’s ingredients and what germs you’re trying to kill. It could be anywhere from 15 seconds to 10 minutes. Read the label for directions. The EPA website will also tell you. You can search by the product’s registration number to find out more. 

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photo of wiping hands
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Wiping Your Hands

Some antibacterial wipes are OK for your hands. But don’t use disinfectant wipes. You could have an allergic reaction. It might make your skin red, itchy, and swollen. That’s called contact dermatitis. Harsh chemicals could cause even more problems on children’s hands.

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photo of wiping counter
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Not Cleaning First

Most wipes can do both. But lots of dirt and grime can make it hard for disinfectants to do their job. That’s why you should always clean a really dirty surface first. You can do that with soapy water or another household cleaner.

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photo of carpet
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Using Them On Soft Surfaces

Wipes aren’t made for stuff like carpet or couch fabric. One reason is they suck up moisture from the wipe. That means they don’t stay wet long enough for the chemicals to work. Wipes work better on hard, nonporous things like stainless steel and plastic. That’s where germs, like the virus that causes COVID-19, tend to stick around the longest. 

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photo of toy hanging from line
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Cleaning Toys

Kids put a lot of things in their mouth. That’s why you shouldn’t clean their toys with disinfectant or antibacterial wipes. Use mild soapy water instead. It might be OK to put some toys in the dishwasher.

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photo of wiping door knob
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Not Using Enough

The wipe loses moisture the more you use it. You could spread germs from one surface to another if it gets too dry. Experts aren’t sure how much you can disinfect with one wipe. Studies show they may work best on 1-2 square feet if the surface stays wet long enough. So it’s probably OK to disinfect a couple of doorknobs or light switches with the same wipe.

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photo of bowl of apples
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Cleaning Fruits and Veggies

A quick swipe over your apple may seem harmless. But you should never use cleaning products on your food. That includes wipes, soap, or a bleach mixture. Instead, wash your fruits and vegetables under running water. You can use a clean produce brush for an extra scrub. Dry with a clean cloth or paper towel when you’re done.

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photo of flushing wipe down toilet
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Flushing Them Down the Toilet

Wipes should go in the trash. The same goes for paper towels. They can clog your pipes or cause a sewage backup down the line. That’s because wipes -- even “flushable” ones -- don’t break up in water the way toilet tissue does. Overflows aren’t good for human health or the environment. Sewer spills can end up in lakes, rivers, or oceans.

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photo of wiping phone
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Using Them to Clean Your Phone

It might be OK to use disinfectant wipes on your smartphone. You can check with the company that makes your phone to be sure. But you shouldn’t do it too often. That could damage the fingerprint-resistant coating. You may want to get a wipeable cover to protect the screen. If you do use wipes on your phone, try to not get moisture near any opening.  Don’t use anything with bleach.

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photo of temperature reading in car
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Leaving Them in Hot Places

Wipes should be stored at room temperature. That’s about 70 F. It’s probably OK to keep a pack in your car if it’s cool outside. But they might dry out if you let them bake in the summer heat

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photo of dog eating
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Using Them on Pets or Their Dishes

Animals can lick the chemicals on their bowls or fur. Only use shampoos or wipes made for grooming. Call your vet right away if your pet chews on a wipe and then throws up or has diarrhea. If you can’t reach your vet, you can call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435.

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photo of man with cold
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Sanitizing Too Much

It’s important to disinfect surfaces that are touched a lot if someone is sick. But you don’t need to run wipes over everything in your house. Experts think the overuse of antimicrobial chemicals might kill good bacteria or lead to “superbugs.” Those are strong germs that are hard to kill.

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Using Old Wipes

Disposable wipes don’t typically expire. Some companies say their wipes will disinfect forever. But others say you should toss wipes a year or two after they’re made. While chemicals can break down over time, it’s more likely that your wipes will dry out. They can’t kill germs without moisture. The manufacturing date is on the label. Look for a string of letters and numbers: “MR20106” means the wipes were made on the 106th day of 2020.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 06/25/2020 Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on June 25, 2020

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
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SOURCES:
Erica Hartmann, PhD, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University. 
The Journal of Hospital Infection: “Persistence of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces and their inactivation with biocidal agents.” 
CDC: “(Coronavirus Disease 2019) Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Home: Everyday Steps and Extra Steps When Someone is Sick,” “Detailed Disinfection Guidance,” “Cleaning and Disinfection for Households: Interim Recommendations for U.S. Households with Suspected or Confirmed Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” “Supplemental Guidance for Child Care,” “Food Safety: Fruit and Vegetable Safety.”
EPA: “6 Steps for Safe & Effective Disinfectant Use,” “List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19),” “Guidance For Cleaning and Disinfecting: Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools, and Homes,” “Selecting and Serving Produce Safely,” “Is it okay to flush disinfecting wipes?” 
FDA: “Q&A for Consumers: Hand Sanitizers and COVID-19.”
Mount Sinai: “Quaternary Ammonium Compounds in Cleaning Products: Health & Safety Information for Cleaners and Supervisors.” 
National Capital Poison Center: “Are Cleaning Wipes Safe?” 
Cleveland Clinic: “How Long Will Coronavirus Survive on Surfaces?” 
Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Control: “Surface area wiped, product type, and target strain impact bactericidal efficacy of ready-to-use disinfectant Towelettes.”
California Water Boards: “The Public Advised to NOT Flush Disinfecting Wipes, Paper Towels down Toilet -- Throw Them Away Instead.” 
The Humane Society of the United States: “How to keep your pets safe around cleaning products.” 
Mayo Clinic: “What are superbugs and how can I protect myself from infection?” 
Michigan State University: “Expiring Products -- Disinfectants & Medications.”  

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on June 25, 2020

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.