Protect Your Passengers From Viruses, Bacteria

Health agencies have encouraged people across the country to shelter-in-place and practice social distancing. And they have distributed numerous notifications on ways to maintain a healthy environment in your home and office.

What about the environment inside your vehicle?

Commuters and those who drive for a living spend hours in their vehicle every day. Yet, even people who are simply running an errand to the grocery story put themselves at risk by harboring viruses and other germs in their vehicles.

“Virus can live for hours on the surfaces of your vehicle,” said Ron Fausnight, retired chemist who specialized in development of car care products. “The length of time for virus survival depends on the surface itself.

“Viruses can remain active on plastic and metal surfaces for days.”

The problem is exacerbated by passengers who may have touched contaminated surfaces. And, if they came into contact with people who are infected with viruses, contaminants may be transferred into your vehicle cabin.

“If your passengers have been in areas with lots of unclean surfaces they may just be spreading around contaminants in your vehicle cabin,” Fausnight said.

Fingers, shoes, clothes--all are potential carriers for viruses. The list for potential transfer points in your vehicle is long:

Door handles, vehicle multimedia screens, tuning buttons, gear shifter, window controls, door locks, glass surfaces, seat belt locks and straps, leather upholstery, headrests, light switches and floor mats.

“Disinfecting wipes are a good way to clean vehicle surfaces,” Fausnight said. “Just make sure they are designed to kill viruses.”

Not all disinfecting wipes are made equal. Some may kill bacteria or molds but not viruses.

“Just because a product says it disinfects does not mean it kills viruses,” Fausnight said. “The solution must be tested and approved for use against viruses.”

Selecting the appropriate product is important. For instance, bleach and alcohol are among the two best-known ways to destroy viruses. They break fatty cell walls protecting virus cells.

“But bleach and alcohol can damage your vehicle interior,” Fausnight said. “Check the manufacturer label on the disinfectant before using it on your vehicle interior. Avoid those that contain bleach and alcohol when cleaning inside or outside your vehicle.”

Also, disinfecting wipes with quaternary ammonium chloride may be used on vehicle surfaces such as plastic and metal. Yet, they are not recommended for wood surfaces found in many automobiles.

Fausnight also warned against using other household cleaners. They simply are too harsh for vehicle surfaces and may discolor or destroy finishes.

For instance, hydrogen peroxide may be great for cleaning wounds but can discolor vehicle leather and cloth seats. Other harsh household cleaners such as dish soap can damage vehicle surfaces.

Moreover, the way you use a disinfecting wipe is important as the type of wipe used.

“Most people just quickly wipe the surface and then dry it,” Fausnight explained. “That won’t work. You really need to let it sit for several minutes.”

Some products call for leaving solution on surfaces for as long as 10 minutes. Otherwise, its efficacy rate--the ability to perform as advertised--cannot be guaranteed.

“Scrubbing thoroughly with regular soap and water is as good at removing viruses from hands as hand sanitizer,” Fausnight said. “You may need to use multiple wipes to maintain a wet surface.”

Fausnight had the following recommendations for a virus-free vehicle:

  • Before disinfecting, clean vehicle surfaces with car care products intended for that purpose. Use vinyl and upholstery cleaner intended for soft, porous surfaces. Metallic surfaces require metal and chrome cleaners. Glass cleaner without ammonia helps prevent streaks for better visibility. 
  • Take extra time to thoroughly clean frequently used surfaces such as handles, nobs, multimedia screens, buttons and safety belt laches.
  • Clean with terry cloth or microfiber towels. They are gentle on vehicle surfaces, do not scratch and provide excellent absorbency.
  • Check the label before using disinfectant. Do not use products that contain bleach or alcohol--they can discolor and permanently damage vehicle surfaces. 
  • Apply disinfectant thoroughly. Wipes work great, but make sure they do not contain bleach or alcohol. Check the label, and test the product on a small area before wider application.
  • Allow the disinfectant to dry completely. Some products require the solution to remain wet on surfaces for as long as 10 minutes. You may need to use multiple wipes.
  • Wear disposable safety gloves. That way you are not inadvertently spreading the virus or potentially transferring it to yourself.  “Avoid touching your face or eyes when you clean your vehicle,” Fausnight said. “Viruses are highly contagious, and you should avoid eye contact with cleaning solutions.”
  • Keep a box of tissues for yourself and your passengers. Encourage passengers to cover their nose and mouths whenever they cough or sneeze. Viruses spread through droplets.
  • Wash floor mats to eliminate contaminants from the soles of shoes. Consider installing all-weather mats--they’re easy to remove and clean.
  • Drivers and passengers should get into the habit of washing their hands thoroughly before entering their vehicles. The Center for Disease Control recommends up to 20 seconds of washing with soap and water.
  • Regular soap and water are as good at disinfecting as hand sanitizer,” Fausnight said. “If you can’t do that, use hand sanitizer before entering your vehicle.” 

List of places where virus may hide in your vehicle:

  • Key and remote fob
  • Parking brake release
  • Center stack buttons, knobs and screens 
  • Gear selector
  • Start button (if equipped)
  • Interior door pull
  • Exterior door handles, both sides 
  • Trunk lid or lift gate grab area
  • Vents
  • Seat belt and buckle
  • Rearview mirror