Chemical disinfectants such as chlorine, ethanol, and hydrogen peroxide kill microorganisms. However, these chemicals can also be harmful to humans if used incorrectly. Accidental exposures to cleaning and disinfection products have increased in the USA and in France during the COVID-19 outbreak. When promoting safe surface disinfection, it is important to address the critical safety issues related to their storage and use.

Sources of information

For any chemical disinfectant, users should follow instructions provided on the label or packaging. In addition, a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) should be available from the supplier that describes in more detail the risks associated with use, recommended precautions, and first aid procedures in case of incidents such as inhalation, ingestion, or eye and skin contact. See this SDS example for household bleach and this website that explains how to read a SDS.

General precautions

The below are general recommendations for precautions applicable to commonly used disinfectants:

  • Keep all chemical disinfectants in correctly labelled containers
  • Do not mix chemical disinfectants together or with other cleaning products
  • Avoid splashes and spills by handling chemical disinfectants with care
  • Do not breathe vapour/gas or spray; prepare and use chemical disinfectants in well ventilated areas
  • Only use water at room temperature for dilutions (unless specified otherwise in users’ instructions)
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke when using chemical disinfectants
  • Wear personal protective equipment (protective clothing, gloves and goggles) if available when handling chemical disinfectants
  • Store chemical disinfectants out of reach of children and in a cool and dry place, protected from heat and sunlight.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling chemical disinfectants
  • Do not use environmental/surface chemical disinfectants for personal hygiene (hand disinfection or bathing).

In addition, any specific precautions recommended on product packaging or the SDS should always be followed.

What to do if you accidentally get exposed

The following actions can be taken in case of accidental exposure to a chemical disinfectant via:

  • Mouth: Immediately rinse mouth out with water. Do not induce vomiting.
  • Skin: Immediately flush the skin with water for 15 min and remove any contaminated clothes.
  • Eyes: Immediately rinse eyes with slow-running clean water for at least 15 minutes. Push the eyes open. Avoid splashing the uncontaminated eye with the wash water while rinsing the contaminated eye. Remove contact lenses if present and possible.
  • Inhalation: Immediately move to an area with open-air or a well-ventilated location. Administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if the injured person has difficulty breathing or stops breathing.
  • If the exposed person is unconscious or having trouble breathing, seek emergency medical help immediately.

In addition, any specific emergency actions recommended on product packaging or the SDS should always be followed.

Additional precautions for commonly used disinfectants

The table below summarizes the main risks and recommended precautions for commonly used disinfectants at typical, commercially available concentrations: chlorine (bleach), ethanol, and hydrogen peroxide.

1 SDS for bleach (5-10% sodium hypochlorite)

2 SDS for 70% ethanol

3 SDS for hydrogen peroxide (15%)

Please note all general recommendations above apply as well; this is a non-exhaustive summary and the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) should be used as reference for precautions to be taken when using any chemical product.

Editor's Note

Author: Karin Gallandat
Review: Karen Levy, Jacqueline Knee
Last Update: 11.05.2020

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