Full disclosure: Some women like to treat themselves to a Starbucks vanilla latte every morning or a weekly manicure or a new pair of shoes every month. I, on the other hand, like to spend my disposable income on a twice monthly house cleaner. As a busy working mother of three, employing Sylvia has allowed me to keep my sanity as well as a clean house. But when the COVID-19 stay-at-home order was announced, we agreed to take a break until the social distancing mandate was lifted.
So my husband and I came up with a plan for keeping our house clean, now that five people plus a dog are all working, eating, playing, and sleeping under the same roof. Every Monday, we vacuum, dust, scrub and wipe down every bedroom, bathroom, and living space in the house. (If you’re wondering why our kids aren’t part of our weekly cleaning workforce, it’s because we want to ensure a thorough job of disinfecting, so we put them to work in the yard!)
At first, we were proud of our once-a-week, hours-long cleaning spree. But now we find ourselves cleaning daily—obsessively spraying disinfectant and repeatedly washing and wiping down pretty much everything in sight. And the minute someone in the house dirties up anything we’ve just cleaned, we lose our cool.
The truth is, once your home is clean, if nobody new comes in from the outside, spending more than a half an hour a day on housework is excessive.
“Right now there’s a legitimate fear of contracting a virus and people are obsessively cleaning not only to kill germs, but because it helps them feel in control during these uncertain times,” says Marcia Kimeldorf, PhD, Director of Clinical Services at the Center for Anxiety in New York City. “They think the more they clean, the better they can prevent a loved one from getting COVID-19. But the truth is, once your home is clean, if nobody new comes in from the outside, spending more than half an hour a day on housework is excessive. You have should ask yourself: When is enough enough? Is there a point after spending the good part of your day cleaning when you can say, ‘Okay, now I am 100% certain nobody will get sick?’ No! That moment will never come.”
The relief excessive cleaners feel when they complete tasks is self-reinforcing, notes Dr. Kimeldorf. “Meaning it reduces anxiety in the short term, but only until you start worrying that things are dirty again, begetting a dangerous never-ending cycle—worry things are dirty, clean, feel better momentarily, worry again, clean, feel better momentarily.”
Experts agree that the relentless COVID-19 news cycle has contributed to the cleaning frenzy. Dr. Elizabeth Crowley, M.D., a New Jersey-based psychiatrist, believes unverified information from the media has led to excessive cleaning behavior. “Over-cleaning is being fueled by fear, not reason. Some people are logically able to sort through and find reliable sources for information about safe cleaning practices, then shift their behavior accordingly. Others, especially those with underlying or previous anxiety or obsessive tendencies when it comes to germs before the virus, will be triggered by the current situation and will be unable to resist the urge to clean excessively. People need to understand the difference between reasonable cleaning practices to minimize infection and obsessive cleaning to quell anxiety.”
How much you clean can also be tied to your personal level of risk tolerance and adversity. “A few may feel the need to clean their shoes every time they enter their home, others else may just leave their shoes at the door, and some might not even care or pay any attention to their shoes,” says Amy Eiten, a New Jersey-based licensed clinical social worker.
People need to understand the difference between reasonable cleaning practices to minimize infection and obsessive cleaning to quell anxiety.
So how can we all obsess less and relax more when it comes to cleaning during this health crisis? “We often think we can control more than we actually can,” notes Dr. Kimeldorf. “Consider how we grip the armrests when we’re on a plane during turbulence. Do we actually believe by holding on tightly we can keep the plane in the air? We cognitively know we can’t, but grasping the armrests makes us feel more in control.”
When it comes to excessive cleaning, start by accepting that uncertainty is part of life, suggests Dr. Kimeldorf. “Most people with anxiety have a hard time tolerating uncertainty, but doing so is at the crux of managing anxiety in general. There’s no amount of cleaning that will rid us of all doubt, so the best we can do is keep our homes reasonably clean. Any more than that is a tradeoff, keeping us from important pursuits and distractions, like reading a good book or escaping with a movie.”
At first, it may feel uncomfortable not to clean when you feel the urge, notes Eiten, “But if you can replace the cleaning behavior with another emotionally rewarding experience, like playing a game with your family, you may discover it’s a way to manage your fear and anxiety, while also putting the brakes on cleaning.”
Most mental health experts believe once the pandemic gets under control, people will go back to their pre-COVID-19 cleaning routines. But in the meantime, we went to some top cleaning experts to find out what we really need to be concerned with right now.
They all stressed the single best thing you can do to keep everyone healthy is to wash your hands for a full 20 seconds immediately upon entering your home. Continuing with the tasks that keep the house flow in motion, like taking out the garbage, doing the laundry, and washing dishes, is important, but try focusing your attention on high-touch spots in your house including light switches and doorknobs, as these are the areas that can truly impact your chances of catching any virus.
How Often Should You Clean High-Touch Spots at Home
We went straight to a few cleaning experts—Melissa Homer, Chief Cleaning Officer at Maid Pro, Becky Rapinchuk, author of Clean Mama’s Guide to a Healthy Home, Melissa Maker, author of Clean My Space, and Laura Dellutri, author of Speed Cleaning 101—to get their thoughts. Read on for their suggestions on how often we should all be cleaning.
1. Cleaning Faucet Handles:
How often should you clean: Once a day.
Best way to clean: Spray faucets with a disinfecting cleaner and let air dry for ten minutes.
2. Cleaning TV Remote Controls:
How often should you clean: Daily if you’re dealing with illness in your home, weekly if everyone is washing their hands when they come through the door.
Best way to clean: The Center for Disease Control recommends putting a wipeable cover on electronics and using a disinfecting wipe or products containing at least 70% alcohol. Tip: flip the remote over and gently blot to get the surface wet without damaging the remote.
3. Interior Door Knobs:
How often should you clean: Weekly in a healthy household practicing isolation, daily in a home where people are coming and going, or where there’s illness.
Best way to clean: Wipe with a disinfecting cleanser or a cotton ball dipped in rubbing alcohol and let air dry.
4. Light Switches:
How often should you clean: Weekly or every time they’re touched when you reenter the house.
Best way to clean: Give light switches a wipe down to remove surface soil (try a magic eraser or a Q-tip dipped in dish detergent and warm water), then hit them up with a disinfectant wipe or microfiber cloth sprayed with disinfectant and let air dry.
How often should you clean: Weekly, more often if someone in the household is sick.
Best way to clean: The CDC recommends following the tag’s washing instructions and using the warmest appropriate water setting, then drying items completely. Be sure to wear disposable gloves when handling a sick person’s dirty linens.
6. Cell Phones and Computer Keyboards:
How often should you clean: Every time they are used outside the home, otherwise weekly.
Best way to clean: Power off the device, then lightly dampen a microfiber towel with an all-purpose cleaner and wipe the phone or keyboard to remove surface dirt. Once clean, wipe with a disinfectant wipe or a cloth dipped in a disinfectant and air dry.
7. Kitchen Countertops:
How often should you clean: Every time they’re used or whenever you rest items brought in from the outside on top of them.
Best way to clean: Remove all items and wipe down the counters with a kitchen sponge moistened with warm water and a touch of dish soap or all-purpose cleaner, then apply a disinfectant and air dry. Test any disinfectant in an inconspicuous area before using.
8. Exterior Door Knobs, Key Pads, Garage Door Remotes/Panels:
How often should you clean: Weekly, or every time you return home if touched. Wash your hands, and then double back to disinfect any doorknobs or panels used to gain entry. Tip: Type in codes and open doors using a clean paper towel and dispose of it immediately to avoid having to sanitize every time.
Best way to clean: Wipe off dirt with a microfiber towel and all-purpose cleaner and then hit things up with a disinfectant spray or wipe and air dry.
How often should you clean: Often enough so wash doesn’t pile up.
Best way to clean: Kill viruses that may have been picked up outside the house by laundering and drying on the warmest possible setting according to the care label. The CDC recommends not shaking laundry items, as doing so can disperse any viruses throughout the air.
How often should you clean: Daily or every other day depending on the level of foot traffic.
Best way to clean: Insist on everyone taking off their shoes at the door, then vacuum the area to avoid bringing dirt, bacteria, and viruses into the home.