As the world opens up amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, travelers have come to expect more frequent cleaning and disinfecting in the spaces they occupy – but it does not have to come at the expense of healthy indoor air quality.
While uncertainty about how the virus spread during the early days of the pandemic led to a significant increase in the use of harsh cleaning chemicals, two years later we have much better information that allows hotels to protect guests both from the virus and from the negative health effects of exposure to disinfecting chemicals.
Cleaning for COVID Starts with Accurate Information
From the very beginning of the pandemic, scientists understood that coronaviruses break down easily with plain soap and water or regular cleaning solution. However, most businesses acted on a natural instinct to turn to the harshest cleaning chemicals available: disinfectants.
Today we know that the virus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets, and the risk of surface transmission is extremely low. In fact, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the chance of being infected with COVID-19 from touching a contaminated surface is less than 1 in 10,000.
This means that covering surfaces with chemicals will not necessarily help prevent the spread of COVID, but it could lead to significant health risks for building occupants. Hotel and lodging properties can guard against viruses and other germs – while also protecting the building’s indoor air quality and the health and safety of guests – by understanding how to choose safer products and when disinfecting is appropriate.
Travelers’ Expectations are Changing
Despite recommendations from the CDC, hotel guests are looking for evidence that substantial cleaning and disinfecting are taking place. So, while the risk of surface-born infection is extremely low, business still must reassure people about safety amid the continuing pandemic. In fact, a 2020 study revealed that 85 percent of consumers want to see visible proof of cleaning.
“The pandemic has placed cleanliness, safety, and security at the forefront of what we now consider luxury, and these criteria are now the priority to pick and choose a hotel to stay at,” says Cecile Sandral-Lasbordes, Director of PR & Marketing – Guest Experience & Quality Leader for Sofitel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, a Green Seal-certified property. “Guests are more alert and educated than ever on cleaning measures and how to fight germs, and they want transparency on what we are doing at the hotel level. But they also want these measures to become part of the overall hotel stay, not disconnected from it. The cleaning and disinfecting need to elevate the experience, not create a context of fear.”
Ninety-five percent of customers responding to a 2021 study said they want to see cleaning practices stay the same or increase even after the COVID vaccine is widespread, indicating that effective cleaning and disinfecting are more than a short-term trend. Guests continue to demand more from housekeeping personnel, underscoring the importance of maintaining a robust cleaning plan for both guest safety and peace of mind.
“Understanding the new expectations and learning to evolve with them is key,” says Sandral-Lasbordes. “The pandemic has taught us that we need to be flexible to survive. Transparency is also extremely important, as well as constantly training our team members to stay up to date with the latest rules and regulations and how to reimagine our work.”
Avoiding a Dangerous Reliance on Disinfectants
Because of the nature of the COVID-19 virus, masking, vaccines, and regular handwashing are the most effective precautions against its spread. However, cleaning and disinfecting are among several additional measures that can help protect guests and reassure them about the safety of a property’s indoor environment.
While regular cleaning is typically effective at removing most virus particles on surfaces, targeted disinfection is sometimes appropriate – such as when someone confirmed or suspected to be infected with COVID has been in the building within the past 24 hours. Otherwise, cleaning regularly is sufficient, so hotel staff do not have to worry about cleaning every time a guest or employee touches a surface.
Even when disinfecting is appropriate, it’s only effective after regular cleaning, as cleaning removes dirt and grime that viruses can hide under. It is also vital to ensure housekeeping employees are using the appropriate cleaning products for the surface, that the products are certified for health and performance, and that housekeeping employees are trained on disinfectants’ dwell times, which can range from 30 seconds to 10 minutes.
Though disinfectants are sometimes needed, they are not harmless: Repeated or extended exposures to disinfecting chemicals can lead to significant health effects. Some common disinfectant ingredients, such as quaternary ammonium compounds, are linked to asthma and reproductive toxicity.
Exposure poses an especially grave risk for the 1 in 13 Americans with asthma – a group that is high-risk for COVID-19. This means that overusing disinfectants to combat the virus can worsen the problem you are trying to solve. Even low levels of indoor air pollutants like these can trigger respiratory symptoms, so it’s critical that hospitality properties make safer choices for the comfort and safety of guests and employees.
Choosing Safer Cleaning Products and Disinfectants
Choosing safer, verified-effective cleaning products – especially those that do not contain asthmagens or respiratory irritants – is critical to protecting hotel staff and guests. Conventional cleaners commonly contain endocrine disruptors and carcinogens, which have been linked to a variety of diseases. Only a few hundred of the 80,000-plus chemicals registered for use in the U.S. have been evaluated for health and environmental effects – so the chemicals inside your cleaning products matter more than you might initially think.
In addition to respiratory irritants, conventional cleaners commonly contain chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine system. The endocrine system is like the body’s conductor – setting the rhythm for metabolism, growth, mood, and sleep patterns. Endocrine disrupting chemicals are linked to a plethora of adverse health effects including hormone changes, lower sperm counts, birth defects, obesity, diabetes, thyroid irregularities, reduced immune function, and reduced vaccine response. Due to the hazardous nature of these chemicals, some third-party certification organizations have restricted endocrine disrupters. Green Seal, for example, prohibits phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), nonylphenol ethoxylates (the byproducts of alkylphenols), and glycol ethers in certified cleaning products.
While housekeepers are most at risk from exposure to hazardous cleaning chemicals, other employees and hotel guests also come into contact with these products daily. To protect people while they are in your space, procurement managers can look for products that have been verified for health, safety, and performance by a credible third-party organization. Green Seal maintains a publicly accessible directory of certified products at certified.greenseal.org.
Like cleaning products, some disinfectants are safer for human and environmental health than others. However, identifying these products can be more challenging because the U.S. EPA does not allow third-party certifications for disinfecting solutions. Purchasers instead must rely on product ingredient labels and resources from leading ecolabels to distinguish safer formulas.
The U.S. EPA’s List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus is a great resource for finding products that are effective against the COVID-19 virus. This list, however, does not identify which products use safer active ingredients. Green Seal recommends choosing approved disinfectants with safer active ingredients such as citric acid, hydrogen peroxide, or isopropyl alcohol, which are not linked to asthma, cancer, endocrine disruption, or DNA damage. A full list of recommended safer active disinfecting ingredients, as well as examples of List N products that use these ingredients, is available here.
How to Safely Adapt to Traveler Demands
In addition to selecting safer cleaning and disinfecting products, lodging properties can promote safety, sustainability, and equity by implementing proven-effective cleaning practices, strengthening cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and effectively communicating their efforts with guests.
Green Seal’s Guidelines for Safer Cleaning and Disinfection for Workplaces offer science-based guidance on best practices. These guidelines align with the LEED Safety First Pilot Credit for Cleaning and Disinfecting, another resource hotel and lodging properties can rely on. The guidelines lay out five actionable best practices for property owners and managers:
- Create a cleaning and disinfection plan, following CDC and EPA guidance. The plan should identify high-touch surfaces and implement a policy that goes beyond visual inspections to regularly verify the effectiveness of cleaning and disinfecting.
- Ensure that housekeeping staff are properly trained on the safe handling of all cleaning and disinfecting products, effective cleaning procedures, and the use and maintenance of cleaning equipment. This includes training housekeeping staff to prioritize ventilation by opening windows and running fans, when possible, and to follow the instructions on product labels, including dwell times. Training should also include best practices for preventing ergonomic injuries and using and disposing of personal protective equipment (PPE) to reduce injuries and exposure to harmful chemicals.
- Select products that maintain sustainability and healthy indoor air. This includes choosing certified green cleaning products and disinfectants with safer active ingredients.
- Provide safer working conditions for housekeeping staff. Use the most effective PPE for cleaning and disinfecting and use ergonomic cleaning equipment with features that reduce worker injuries.
- Communicate the cleaning and disinfecting plan to other employees and guests so everyone can understand what measures are in place to protect safety. As travelers demand more visibility into businesses’ cleaning protocols, effectively communicating your lodging property’s protective requirements is more important than ever.
In addition to following the above guidelines, hotels that want to verify that they are adhering to best practices for cleaning performance and health protection can apply for certification or validation from independent organizations including Green Seal, LEED, WELL, or Fitwel.
Promoting Equity Through Green Cleaning and Disinfecting
Using safe, effective green cleaning and disinfecting practices offers the same health and performance benefits as before the pandemic, but the stakes are greater now, since excessive use of hazardous chemicals has become the norm.
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the roles and sacrifices of housekeeping professionals. These frontline workers put their own health on the line to protect the health of others. Promoting safer cleaning products and practices offers a significant opportunity to promote social equity for the members of this behind-the-scenes workforce, who are predominantly members of under-represented and marginalized communities.
Several studies found that both domestic and professional cleaning work are associated with increased risk of asthma and other respiratory effects. In fact, the first long-term study of the effects of cleaning chemicals on lung function found that regular use of cleaning sprays can cause a decline in lung function that is comparable to smoking 20 cigarettes per day.
Hotels can promote equity by sourcing certified green cleaning products; choosing List-N disinfectants that use safer active ingredients; and adhering to independent, science-based guidelines, such as Green Seal’s Disinfecting Guidelines or the LEED Safety First Pilot Credit for Cleaning and Disinfecting.
Society’s understanding of the virus has evolved over the course of the pandemic, and so must the response. Hotel guests now have an unprecedented interest in indoor air quality that is expected to long outlast the pandemic. By following the latest independent, science-based guidance on cleaning and disinfecting, hospitality property owners and managers can provide assurance that they are on top of the necessary measures to protect the health of guests and employees effectively and holistically.