'Hygiene Theater' During the COVID-19 Pandemic—Here's What It Is, and Why It's Not Always Helpful

According to new CDC cleaning guidelines, soap—not disinfectant—is just fine in most situations.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, people scrambled to grab any disinfectant they could get their hands on. Lysol and Clorox wipes became such a hot commodity that they started selling for grossly inflated prices on Amazon. Plenty of stores also started touting their cleanliness in ads.

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All of that may have been for nothing. A science brief from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that the average person's risk of contracting COVID-19 from a surface is less than one in 10,000 or 0.01%. While the brief says that "it's possible" for people to be infected with COVID-19 from touching an infected surface and then touching their nose, mouth, or eyes, the organization also states that the "risk is generally considered to be low."

The CDC guidelines for cleaning your home recommend regular household cleaners that contain soap and detergent for most people. The exceptions are if you have someone in your home with a known COVID-19 infection or someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and was in your home within the last 24 hours. The CDC recommends using disinfectants in these situations.

The takeaway? All of those intense cleanings amounted to what's called "hygiene theater." Here's a breakdown of what it means, and why it can even be harmful.

What is hygiene theater, exactly?

Hygiene theater is a term used to describe the practice of taking hygiene measures to give off the feeling of improved safety without actually lowering the risk of catching an illness—in this case, COVID-19. It refers to all of the stadiums, such as grocery stores, businesses, and even people in individual homes that have been doing intense cleaning since the pandemic began, even though there's been little proven benefit from those sometimes extreme measures.

The term first became popular in a July 2020 article published in The Atlantic. "What if this is all just a huge waste of time?" writer Derek Thompson mused. He later followed that up with a February 2021 article, stating that hygiene theater is "still a huge waste of time."

Doctors agree that deep cleanings are largely useless in combatting the pandemic.

"It's a waste of time," Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Health. "People should focus their efforts on more productive endeavors.

Infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees. "It's stupid," he says. "People have been doing this from the very beginning and it's just theater."

The CDC says that it's "possible" to contract COVID-19 from touching an infected surface and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes, but far from the main way people contract the virus—by breathing in infected droplets. Dr. Adalja stresses that the risk of getting from surfaces is very low. "I've never cleaned my mail or groceries," he says. "This doesn't do very much. People transmit COVID-19 through close contact."

This doesn't mean you should take a vacation from cleaning regularly, though. "Obviously, if someone sneezes on a table and they have COVID, you want to clean it," Dr. Adalja says. "But when someone goes to a podium after another person, and they've got people up there cleaning in between…that's just foolish."

What is the harm in hygiene theater?

While spending a lot of time cleaning on its own isn't necessarily harmful—and it can be necessary for those who have underlying health issues like a lowered immune system—Dr. Adalja is concerned about the message it sends. "It gives people the wrong impression about what is and isn't risky," he says.

It also gives people a "false sense of security, because people don't realize that's not the main way they could get infected," says Dr. Adalja. Take the example of wiping down groceries and mail with disinfecting wipes versus wearing a securely-fitted mask—the CDC clearly states that mask use is far more protective than cleaning those surfaces. But "if someone doesn't know better, they think it's what they should be doing instead," says Dr. Adalja.

OK, so how should you be cleaning?

The CDC has incredibly detailed information on this, both for when everyone in your home is healthy and for when someone with a known COVID-19 infection is in your house.

At baseline, the CDC recommends that you clean your home "regularly" with standard household cleaners, and specifically suggests the following:

  • Clean high-touch surfaces regularly and after you have visitors in your home.
  • Focus on high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, tables, handles, light switches, and countertops.
  • Clean other surfaces in your home when they are visibly dirty or as needed.
  • Clean surfaces using a product suitable for each surface, following instructions on the product label.

If someone in your home is sick, the CDC suggests taking these steps to clean your place:

  • Always follow the directions on the label of your disinfectants. Many products recommend keeping the surface wet with a disinfectant for a certain period of time.
  • Clean visibly dirty surfaces with household cleaners containing soap or detergent before disinfecting if your disinfectant product does not have a cleaning agent.
  • Use a disinfectant product from the Environmental Protection Agency's List N of products that are effective against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
  • Wear gloves for all tasks in the cleaning process.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds after you remove your gloves.

Doctors say you can relax a bit if you've been a fiend about cleaning during the pandemic. "I wouldn't stress it," Dr. Adalja says.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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