The Science Behind the Coronavirus and Detailing
Posted on April 04 - Jared Toops
The Emergence [or Resurgence] of the Detailing Opportunists
You've likely seen it enough now; a detailer or detail shop advertising "disinfection" of your interior, or a product manufacturer claiming that their interior cleaner will kill the virus or sanitize your interior. While these claims are well-intentioned and the detailers behind them are simply trying to survive, they are often misleading and could potentially cause harm if left unchecked - or in this particular case - unverified by research.
We're going to examine whether it's possible to kill a virus with multiple interior detailing methods that have either been advertised or discussed in the prior weeks. The answers will be based on expert opinion, peer-reviewed scientific journals and prior chemical research.
You'll find that while it takes very specific chemicals and processes, it is possible - at least in a general sense - to reduce the viability of the virus to such a level that the likelihood of it reproducing and infecting you, your customers or your family is extremely low.
I've spent a little over a week researching this in various mediums, more or less for my own good. A portion of the answer does involve a bit of logarithmic mathematics/biochemical terminology, but I'll simplify it as best I can. Let's get into it.
Understanding the Physical Structure of SARS-CoV-2 (and Other Related Pathogens)
At risk of losing you before you've made it past the first few paragraphs, let's first explore what a virus is in physical terms. Viruses are protein structures that carry RNA genomes. RNA (ribonucleic acid), is a sort of chemical messenger that works with DNA in cell synthesis. In the case of a virus, the RNA also contains genetic information that allows the virus to reproduce. That RNA is carried in an envelope protein surrounded by membrane proteins.
Coronaviruses, first heavily researched with the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in 2004, are unique in that they have spike proteins, which literally look like small spikes protruding from the central membrane proteins. This is the physical structure of SARS-CoV-2 that allows it to infect host cells (in this case, respiratory cells). In the case of novel coronavirus, spike proteins are attached to that oily lipid membrane.
The good news about this lipid membrane is that it can be easily destroyed. This is why the CDC has been adamant that we should be washing our hands like there's no tomorrow; the combination of chemical and mechanical processes involved in hand washing all but destroy the lipid membrane.
So, case closed, right? Soap and water? Give the interior a wipe-down and be done with it?
Not quite. While human skin is porous, pliable, and has its own surface tension, the materials in a vehicle (while similar in certain cases) require different techniques to ensure the destruction of the lipid membrane housing the core elements of the coronavirus.
Detailers commonly advertise specific methods such as steam cleaning to sanitize or disinfect surfaces, without understanding that these two terms are mutually exclusive. While steam can sanitize surfaces, many detailers don't understand the temperature and exposure factors required to accomplish full sanitization, let alone true disinfection.
Sanitizing Versus Disinfecting
Yes, there is a difference, and yes... The distinction matters. The distinction could mean the difference between performing a cleaning procedure that truly does break the virus structure and performing a cleaning procedure that actually spreads the virus to adjacent surfaces.
Sanitizing is the act of reducing the amount of bacteria present by 99.9%, or in mathematical/biochemical terms, 3 Log10 where there is 6 Log10 worth of virus present. Think of the logarithmic math this way; starting with 1,000,000 particles, we reduce the particles present to 1,000, but the virus within the particles is still present. Sanitizing is the process of reduction, not the process of elimination.
Disinfecting is the process of eliminating bacterial particles/viral proteins. If we have 6 Log10 (1,000,000 particles) worth of viral proteins on a surface they are reduced to zero; completely gone.
When detailers advertise sanitization in their understanding, they are generally correct, but this term is too often interchanged (or used in conjunction) with disinfection. Misinterpreting the meanings of these terms and what they represent, at least in the current predicament, could result in making someone seriously ill.
Steam Cleaning: The Fine Print
Steam machines have been used in detailing for decades. They're commonly used to clean interior surfaces by substituting high-temperature water vapor for chemicals. This is especially useful in cases where the owner of a vehicle is either allergic to or intolerant of certain chemicals or their scents. Steam is very effective in removing stains and even raised scuff marks on some surfaces. Steam is also used in the removal of paint protection film and window tint.
However, when SARS-CoV-2 became classified by the WHO as a pandemic, it seemed as though detailers [understandably] panicked and/or saw the possibility for revenues attached to steam cleaning and thus "sanitizing or disinfecting an interior." Some even went so far as to claim that this process killed the virus. Does it?
The short answer: No.
In fact, even if the little-known guidelines surrounding steam cleaning are followed closely, steam can actually spread the virus as it can linger in a space (especially as small as a vehicle) as an aerosol, and the pressurized air from the tip of a steam attachment can simply move the virus from one surface/area to another.
It's been stated by the World Health Organization that the coronavirus which causes SARS-CoV-2 can be eliminated at temperatures of approximately 56C/132F, for a duration of about 15 minutes. This is why it isn't viable on most prepared foods.
In order to kill 99.9% of bacteria, steam must be concentrated in the contaminated area at temperatures between 175F and 212F for 3 minutes or more. Detailers rarely, if ever, hold a steam attachment on a given surface for 3 minutes; in fact, this could damage some leathers and plastics, and seriously compromise electrical components.
Even the most advanced steam cleaners (which are expensive, up to about $4,100) used by professional detailers can only heat water vapor under pressure to about 338 degrees Fahrenheit. Well, that's much greater than the 175F to 212F threshold we discussed a moment ago, correct? Well, not necessarily.
Let's use that high-end steam machine at 338F as an example; Most steam machines are temperature-rated at the tip of the attachment; some consumer-grade models are rated at the boiler, which is even less reliable. Steam loses heat rapidly as it loses pressure (the farther it travels from the tip of the attachment, the greater the loss in heat). The heated vapors need to travel from the tank to the surface through a hose, and it loses temperature rapidly traveling through the hose. Before it reaches the tip, dependent upon the pressure rating of the steamer (usually just over 100PSI), it's losing up to 33% of its temperature, keeping it barely above the threshold to sanitize a surface.
It's not advisable to hold the tip of a steam machine on any surface as it could simply burn, melt or discolor said surface. Therefore, we have to hold the attachment at a distance from the surface we intend to clean.
It's difficult to measure the precise temperature of steam as it contacts a surface, but it is significantly reduced as it comes into contact with ambient air and finally, the surface itself. Combine that with the fact that 3 or more minutes are required to sanitize the area contacted by the steam (think about the size of a steam cleaner attachment; it's not very large), and the argument that this method is actually killing a virus falls apart quickly, especially when you consider the temperature requirement having to be met for 15 minutes to actually kill the virus entirely.
Temperatures and surfaces notwithstanding, pressurized air combined with water vapor, especially in the hands of an amateur detailer, is likely just relocating the bacteria and infectious aerosols from one area to another.
Put simply, steam cleaning your own vehicle, let alone advertising this service to a client as a means of disinfection is not ethical. It's dangerous for both parties, especially without PPE.
Ozone and Air Purification: The Science Brings Mixed Conclusions
Another service aggressively advertised by professional detailers as COVID-19 became more prevalent; interior ozone treatments.
Ozone works by breaking oxygen (O2) into singular molecules, which then bond with other molecules, creating ozone (O3). O3 is harmful to humans. According to the EPA, ozone can harm lung tissue and impede lung function even at low levels of exposure.
Based on EPA studies linked in this brilliant article on the Molekule blog, the effectiveness of ozone in killing bacteria and viruses is largely refuted, unless it is generated in dangerously high quantities. Most ozone generators designed to fit in vehicles, especially consumer-grade units, don't approach this level of ozone generation.
Conversely, in an article housed in the US National Library of Medicine, it's said that ozone was successfully used to purify environments infected with the original SARS virus, SARS-CoV-1. Still, there are no proven examples of ozone having any effect on SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19.
I have personally operated ozone machines in my days of detailing, and combined with mechanical cleaning, they are effective in reducing/removing unpleasant scents. However, let's leave the clinical trials to medical professionals, chemical engineers and other authorities that have the means to test the claims we're discussing regarding ozone. While some detailers are well-informed, they do not possess the credentials to make the call on this.
The science, at least at this point, does not give us a definitive answer on this topic, which means it's also not ethical to be touting this as an effective means of sterilizing interiors.
Is There Anything That's Been Proven to Work?
On surfaces, yes.
The CDC hasn't released definitive information regarding how long the virus can survive on surfaces like carpet and leather. However, on plastic, it can survive up to 72 hours. A majority of modern cars contain plastics/vinyl materials. Most genuine leather is coated from the factory, and that coating is similar in surface tension to many plastics. Moreover, many modern vehicles rely on large touch screens or plastic control surfaces like turn signal stalks and shift knobs. It's not possible to clean these frequently touched surfaces with steam or ozone, even if those were eventually proven effective somehow.
What has been proven effective against the virus are products that have been around for some time: Soap and water.
Yes, isopropyl alcohol concentrated at 70% or greater and left to dwell works well in disinfecting surfaces; but you can't clean the interior of your car with isopropyl alcohol without drying out the leather/plastics or causing irreversible damage to other sensitive surfaces.
As we discussed earlier, the coronavirus that causes SARS-CoV-2 is contained within a lipid membrane. The structural integrity (for the lack of a better term) of that lipid membrane can be compromised by the hydrophobic tails of soap molecules. Again, this is why hand washing has been so effective in mitigating the spread of this particular coronavirus.
In the simplest terms possible, soap molecules have a hydrophilic head and a hydrophobic tail. The hydrophilic head bonds with water, while the hydrophobic tail attempts to disperse and bonds to oil and fats. These hydrophobic tails jam themselves into the fatty membrane of the coronavirus and pry it apart. The soap traps spike proteins and other elements of the dismembered virus and carries it away in small bubbles called micelles.
Now, combine the general water behavior effects of soap with an antibacterial/antiviral chemical that has been proven to kill viruses, and you have a chemical solution that when used properly, can truly disinfect the interior surfaces of a car. We'll cover that chemical solution next.
BioCote: Proven Effective in Killing Viruses Since 1994
Located in the United Kingdom, BioCote has been engineering chemical additives since 1994. Their products have been used in several industrial applications, including everything from construction materials and lighting to consumer products like pet bowls.
The chart above shows surfaces, plastics included, that were infected with/covered by the H1N1 virus and subjected to BioCote. The H1N1 virus is similar in protein structure to the coronavirus that causes SARS-CoV-2, in that its RNA is contained within a lipid membrane.
On all of the surfaces in the experiment treated with BioCote, the virus was reduced from 6 Log10 to 0. This meets the definition of true disinfection.
Let's note that in the experiment, the materials were left to dwell overnight, covered in BioCote (approximately 6-8 hours).
So, how does one find BioCote? There is a chemical in the detailing community that contains this substance.
GTechniq I2 Tri-Clean: The Right Ingredients to Disinfect Interior Surfaces
GTechniq Tri-Clean, according to its MSDS, contains 1% Benzylammonium Chloride, also known by the EPA as BAC. Although that may seem like an insignificant amount of BAC, this is about 3 times the amount required to dwell on a surface and render the virus unviable.
In perhaps the most encouraging development in this blog post, by chemical composition and concentration, Tri-Clean would qualify for "List N," a list of disinfectants that are deemd effective by the CDC against COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2.
By referencing this list, at a total concentration of 0.3%, BAC would only have to dwell on the surface for 5 minutes to render the virus nullified. Although Tri-Clean contains a 1% concentration of BAC, I would recommend letting it dwell for 5 minutes anyhow, just to stay within the margin of error.
GTechniq Tri Clean has been around for some time and works well on virtually all interior surfaces. I used it before this global pandemic reared its ugly head; it cleans effectively, it smells great, and it leaves no undesirable finish behind.
Tri Clean sprays out as a foam, which gives it the advantage of the aforementioned soap/water mixture in that its very nature helps to break down the virus.
Combine these attributes, and I believe we've found a detailing product, backed by science, that could be helpful in fighting this virus.
I want to make it abundantly clear that I'm making no claims that this will prevent you from contracting the virus; let's be smart about this and continue to use PPE and abide by all of the recommendations set forth by the CDC/WHO.
Step-by-Step Guide: How I Used Tri-Clean to Disinfect My Interior
Step 1: Assemble the Necessary Tools
Of course you'll want a bottle of GTechniq Tri-Clean, a few microfiber terry towels (color-coded is ideal as you'll want these separated for laundry purposes), and a brush. I've had this Colourlock brush for years, and I like it on leather as it helps generate a strong lather.
Set the bottle on "spray" rather than stream; you want to create a frothy lather so that it dwells on sloped/curved surfaces for as long as possible.
I'd highly recommend wearing CDC-recommended PPE for this project, especially nitrile gloves. If you can't find any, which seems to be the case for just about everyone, we have them.
Step 2: Spray, Let Dwell, Scrub & Wipe Clean
Spray the cleaner on plastic, leather and vinyl surfaces. We'll get to the seatbelts later. You'll want to focus on high-traffic, frequently-touched areas.
Let it dwell for at least 5 minutes, per the CDC. You may have to saturate certain areas. You can also scrub the area and then let it dwell; whatever works for that particular surface.
Wipe it clean with a microfiber and flip the microfiber to a new side to avoid cross-contaminating other areas. Switch once you've soiled each of the sides.
Step 3: Hit the Frequently Touched Areas
High-traffic/frequently touched areas are:
- -Interior door handles, upper door cards, armrests and door pulls
- -Steering wheel
- -Gearshift knob/buttons
- -Turn signal, cruise control and wiper stalks
- -Volume knob, HVAC controls, etc.
- -Passenger grab handles (on the headliner)
- -Center console armrest
A quick tip for letting this dwell on the shift knob and other narrow surfaces; wrap a microfiber around the "neck," spray, let dwell, and agitate. After 5 minutes, simply remove the towel and wipe the area clean.
This should prevent messes made by overspray or dripping product.
Step 4: Don't Forget Your Seatbelts
In order to avoid soaking the seatbelts, hold a microfiber towel in the palm of your hand. Spray I2 Tri-Clean into the towel and slowly pull the seatbelt through your hand like a piece of rope.
Be sure to also clean your seat belt buckles/recepticles as you and your passengers touch these extremely often.
Conclusion: The Ethos of Detailing Amidst a Global Pandemic
It's cheesy at this point, but it's true:
We're all in this together.
The detailing industry has long been handicapped by misinformation and amateurs posing as learned professionals. Many of us have worked for years to educate the general public and rid our industry of the generalizations assumed by those who are unaware that brand new cars are anything but perfect, and that ceramic coatings can save a car from scratches, rock chips, or even destructive fires.
We have the opportunity to take a step forward with efforts like this blog, or we can take ten steps backwards. Making false or boisterous claims about detailing procedures killing the coronavirus or allowing our colleagues to partake in that type of unethical behavior is a surefire way to degrade the trust that the world puts into professional detailers and our industry.
While it's far easier said than done, if you're a professional, not only should you avoid unproven claims, you should avoid detailing interiors altogether; there are a significant number of surfaces that both you and your clients will both touch in the process, and even if you're the best detailer on the planet, you may miss a spot or the virus may simply outlive your cleaning efforts. Don't risk it. The revenue gained versus the risk of contracting the virus or spreading it to someone who falls seriously ill is never going to be worth it.
While I'm excited about these findings with Tri-Clean and the science behind them, again, I'm not advertising this as some sort of magic potion that kills the virus; it's just the best-versed product for the job, and we should support BioCote, the company that had the foresight to do the type of research and development necessary to create products that can help us fight viruses like H1N1 and most recently, COVID-19.
Do your part, listen attentively to the CDC/WHO, and we can come out of this phase with our dignity and our health intact.