What Is 'Hygiene Theater,' and Can It Hurt, Rather Than Help?

Excessive cleaning due to COVID-19 may not be necessary after all.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, many people scrambled to grab any disinfectant they could get their hands on. Lysol and Clorox wipes became such hot commodities that their prices shot up overnight. Stores and restaurants started touting their cleanliness in ads. What this was, it turns out, is "hygiene theater."

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Also called sanitation theater or cleaning theater, hygiene theater is a term used to describe the practice of extreme washing to give off the feeling of improved safety without actually lowering the risk of catching an illness—in this case, COVID-19.

A 2021 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 "risk is generally considered to be low." The main way people contract the virus is by breathing in infected droplets.

The CDC guidelines for cleaning your home recommend regular household cleaners that contain soap and detergent and not necessarily disinfectants. If you have someone in your home with a known COVID-19 infection or have had someone in your home with a positive test within 24 hours, then the CDC recommends using disinfectants.

The takeaway? Though they may have made us feel better at the time, all of those intense cleanings may have been unnecessary and perhaps even harmful, in a way.

Doctors Agree That Deep Cleanings Are Largely Useless in Combatting the Pandemic

The term "hygiene theater" 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. And physicians answered.

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

"It's stupid," said Amesh A. Adalja, MD, infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "People have been doing this from the very beginning, and it's just theater. This doesn't do very much. People transmit COVID-19 through close contact."

But this is not to say to stop cleaning entirely; just do it within reason. "Obviously, if someone sneezes on a table and they have COVID, you want to clean it," said Dr. Adalja. "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 sanitizing your home isn't necessarily harmful—and it can be important 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."

It also provides a "false sense of security, because people don't realize that's not the main way they could get infected," said 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," said Dr. Adalja.

What Level of Cleaning Is Necessary?

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

At baseline, the CDC recommends that you clean your home "regularly" with standard household products 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:

  • 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, which identifies 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, using soap and water for 20 seconds after you remove your gloves.

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

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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