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Equipment

How to Disinfect Camera Equipment and Spaces

Published March 20, 2020

I’m qualified to talk about this subject to some degree; I take care of a ton of camera equipment, and I was a physician in my past life. And I’ve had so many requests for information about this that it seems logical to put something out, so everyone has access to it.

That being said, at this moment in time, there are NO right answers. This is my best knowledge and best opinions. Other people have other thoughts. Two weeks from now, new information may make some of this incorrect or show there are better ways to do things. If I say something today and the CDC says something else next Thursday, go with the CDC.

Finally, we’re talking about using products that can have some side effects and cause problems. What I’m going to discuss is relatively safe, but if you use one of these suggestions, be smart, test a small amount on yourself and your gear and make sure it doesn’t cause any problems for you.

Finally, I’m aware that there are lots of pseudoscientific BS things being posted every day, and even worse, some disgusting people that are selling said BS things. I usually run a fast and loose comment section, but for this article, I will immediately delete any essential oil, homeopathic, crystal therapy, and other nonsense suggestions that shows up in the comments. We also aren’t a political forum, and political discussions need to go elsewhere.

Disinfecting Equipment and People

What you can and can’t accomplish.

If you are going out amongst people, you’re taking some risk. You can reduce it, but you can’t eliminate it. Surgical masks protect others from you a bit; they don’t protect you from others. (If you have an N95 mask, properly fitted and you are clean shaven, it may be a different matter. But if you have’t done a proper fit test probably not.) Beards increase your risk of both giving and receiving a bit and negate any benefit of a mask. Gloves keep stuff from getting on your fingers, but otherwise, virus transfers from gloves-to-face and gloves-to-anything else just fine.

This virus transmits by aerosol, so if you breathe an infected person’s air, bad things happen. That’s what the 6-foot rule is about, although 6 feet probably isn’t quite enough. The virus also settles on surfaces, and if you touch the surface and then your face, bad things happen. How long the virus can live on surfaces isn’t clear and depends a lot on the surface and ambient conditions. At least 8 hours is a reasonable rule for encapsulated virions (virus particles), but under ideal (for the virus) conditions 24 hours seems likely. There have been some reports of 72 hours in lab conditions, but that seems unlikely in real-life conditions.

So there’s one thought for you; if the gear hasn’t been touched or breathed on in 24 hours, it’s almost certainly safe; at 72 hours, you can take off the almost.

The Disinfectants

Soap and water

Used for 20 seconds is superbly effective on skin and other surfaces. Whatever soap is fine, it works by dissolving the lipid (fatty) capsule around the virus. And here’s an alternative for those of you freaking out about “I can’t get Lysol wipes”. Just use some soap and water, it’s effective if not quite as easy.

Isopropyl alcohol

Chemical name: Isopropyl alcohol

Examples: Purell, most hand sanitizers

At concentrations of 60% or higher this is very effective although it works a bit better on surfaces than on skin. Purell and most other hand sanitizers are basically 60% isopropyl alcohol. Alcohol may not work as fast as soap, and the rule of thumb is just let it dry rather than wiping it off.

Aside #1: if you can’t get hand sanitizer, you can make your own if you can get 99% isopropyl alcohol; mix two parts alcohol with 1 part hand cream and blend it thoroughly. It’s probably not as good as the regular ones, but it’s better than nothing.

I get asked if ethanol (the alcohol you drink) would work, and the answer is probably, but to get the concentration you need, you better use pure grain alcohol or at least 150 proof. Methanol (wood alcohol) is rather toxic, and I’d stay away from it. But basically, all alcohol will work.

Chlorine Bleach

Chemical name: Sodium hypochlorite

Examples: Clorox, generic laundry bleach

Standard laundry bleach is usually 2.6% to 5.25% sodium hypochlorite (bleach), which is WAY too high a concentration to use for disinfecting. To make a disinfectant, you want to add 20ml of 5.25% bleach to a liter of water. Double it to 40ml if you have 2.6% bleach, etc.

Two important notes here: NEVER mix chlorine bleach with any other cleanser, or put it into a bottle that used to have another cleanser without thoroughly rinsing the bottle. And mix it in a well-ventilated area just in case. Bleach plus ammonia, vinegar, and several other things can cause noxious fumes. Chlorine bleach is very effective, hospitals use it, but it can be irritating in large quantities, and it can fade dyes and color. If you decide to spray down an entire room, for example, keep people out of that room until the fumes clear. It can also fade dyes and colors (yes, I’m emphasizing that part).

Non-Chlorine Bleach / Oxidizing Agents

Chemical names: hydrogen peroxide, sodium percarbonate, sodium perborate

Examples: Clorox II, Oxi Clean, ECover etc.

There are a lot of products in this category; basically oxy-this, non-bleach that, ‘safe bleach,’ and of course the dreaded ‘non-chemical’, ‘all-natural’, and I’m sure you can get it as organic and non-GMO bleach at slightly higher prices. They mostly are peroxides, like hydrogen peroxide, but often slightly different chemicals that are more stable; regular hydrogen peroxide tends to bubble off and lose effectiveness over time once it’s opened.

You need at least 2%, and probably 3% peroxide to be an effective disinfectant, and even then, its effectiveness against Coronavirus is ‘probable,’ but not guaranteed.

Quarternary Ammonium Products

Chemical names: benzalkonium chloride, Didecyldimethylammonium chloride, Benzethonium chloride

Examples: Clorox disinfecting wipes, Mediclean, Fantastik

There are tons of these (tons of slightly different chemicals, more tons of products containing them). Benzalkonium Chloride is probably the one you see most commonly if you read ingredient labels, but if you’re interested in chemical names, just google it. They are both detergents (like soap) and disinfectants, so they’re very common in disinfecting wipes and such. They’re also what’s in most fabric softeners.

While I haven’t seen any actual studies regarding specific effectiveness against Covid-19, they are effective against other coronavirus and expected to be effective against this one.

Aside #2: Dryer antistatic sheets usually contain lots of quaternary ammonium compounds. My significant other (an ICU nurse) carries a few in her purse as door grabbers and emergency cleansing wipes.

Aside #3: regular detergent can negate the detergent-like effect of quarternary ammoniums, so using both together isn’t better and in theory could be worse.

Thymol

The proper name is  2-isopropyl-5-methylphenol. I mention it mostly because you may have seen it marketed as your ‘all natural’, ‘non-chemical’, ‘essential oil’ disinfectant or preventative. It does work against some bacteria, but it’s useless against Coronavirus. There is some thymol in thyme essential oil, and I’ve seen some people selling that as protective against coronavirus. That’s just bullshit. (The editors wanted a more appropriate word here, but I couldn’t think of one.)

Triclosan

This is used in some ‘non-alcohol’ hand sanitizers and disinfectants. It’s pretty effective against bacteria but not against coronavirus, so if your hand sanitizer has this and doesn’t have 60% isopropyl alcohol, well, might as well stop using it.

Equipment and Spaces

Yeah, you already know about washing your hands and keeping your distance.

Studio and Office Space

The first word, doorknobs. This is the perfect place to use that dilute bleach solution, oh, 67 times a day if it’s a busy location. All surfaces, counters, desktops, should get this treatment too, but once or twice a day is probably enough in most cases. However, if you have a work location where different people may use the same desk or area during the day, it should get sprayed when person A leaves, and before person B starts there.

A few people have skin more sensitive to chlorine bleach than most, so a sign saying you’re using it (if that’s what you’re using) is a polite thing to do. Alcohol will work instead of chlorine, but most of us aren’t able to get it in quantity right now, and it’s a lot more expensive. Oxidizing agents and quarternary ammonium compounds are also choices, but probably take quite a bit longer to work. Might be an end-of-the-workday alternative.

Cloth things (backdrops, scenery, clothes) are best disinfected in a washing machine if possible. Regular wash with detergent is probably all you need, but a little bleach couldn’t hurt. If you can’t wash it, you can spray it with bleach solution or alcohol. Of course, bleach may fade dyes in cloth.

If you have non-chlorine bleach or quartenary ammonium cleaners or products, they will probably be effective and cause less ‘bleachy’ smell. Then again, right now, most of us welcome a bleachy smell. And ‘probably’ effective may not be what you want.

Camera Gear and Equipment

First, remember that if your gear has been sitting away from people for a couple of days, it’s safe. If you’re on a video production or multi-camera shoot, don’t share cameras. Assign who uses what equipment as much as is possible.

Alcohol  and Soap

Despite what some manufacturers have said, we, and every repair shop I know have used isopropyl alcohol in 60% or greater concentrations on camera equipment for a long time and haven’t seen any adverse effects. Some manufacturers said 99% isopropyl might maybe affect lens coatings. I respectfully disagree, although I will say vigorous rubbing can affect some lens coatings, so take it easy and don’t use wire brushes or such.

Don’t soak it; that is asking for trouble and isn’t necessary. Just moisten it. Use common sense to try to keep your disinfectant on the outside and not let it run into the inside. A light mist with a spray bottle, or a cloth or paper towel dipped in alcohol works great for large surfaces. You might want to dip a Q tip or similar thing to get into small areas or places where you’d rather not spray.

A little soap and water applied with a dipped cloth and rubbed can be used on appropriate places; lens barrels, camera rubber, light stands, etc. and wiped off with a cloth and water after half a minute. Spray alcohol may be better in nooks and crannies if you can find it. I recommend only to use Q-tips or a dipped cloth around camera viewfinders, etc.

There is a chance that alcohol used repeatedly could dull the rubber of lens rings or camera bodies. I haven’t seen it, but I have seen it claimed. I have also heard that it can dull or fog the finish of LCD screens, but again I haven’t seen it, and I do know the ‘monitor cleaner’ I use contains isopropyl alcohol. Still, given the others who claim it can, at least in some cameras, I’d try to keep it to a minimum.

Cleaning Camera Equipment

Either of these disinfectants can be used on light’s fresnel screens, but I would not apply them to high-intensity tungsten or strobe bulbs themselves. Any residue could, like finger oil, cause issues and burn out your bulb. They should be fine for LED lights, though.

Problems: It’s very difficult to find isopropyl alcohol right now, so you may have to consider alternatives.

Dilute Chlorine Bleach

This should be fine on metal things like lightstands or lens barrels. It’s probably fine on hard plastic, although there’s a slight chance it might fade colors. Same with cloth or rubber, although the color fading chance is higher. And it could cause some rusting on unpainted iron or steel surfaces.

I would not use chlorine bleach on cameras, myself, nor would I apply it to front or rear elements. I think it would be safe, but I’m not certain, and I would go with one of the alternatives.

Non-chlorine bleaches / oxidizers

These are less likely to cause fading, but you need to assume you’re in the ‘probably effective’ category now. I wouldn’t hesitate to use them if that’s what you have, though; probably effective is way better than nothing.

Quarternary Ammonium Products

If you’re able to get a ‘disinfectant’ level product, I’d be as comfortable with using this as bleach as far as effectiveness, but it will have less chance of irritation, fumes, or fading colors. The CDC does say these are effective for disinfecting surfaces for coronavirus, but I have been unable to find clear data on how long of exposure is necessary.

One Last Note About Cameras

I think it’s pretty easy and pretty safe to disinfect all of your equipment and studio space or office effectively EXCEPT, for your camera. Let’s face it; you (or them) got your face all up in there, so it’s the most likely place to have received a big viral load. It’s also the place you DON’T want to soak and saturate with any of the above solutions. Plus, the areas around the LCD, viewfinder, etc. are full of nooks and crannies, making them more difficult to get to, and according to some manufacturers, LCD screens might be sensitive to disinfectants. (Again, my own opinion is I haven’t seen it, but what manufacturer’s say can’t just be ignored).

I’d recommend just not sharing cameras on a shoot, right now. If you do share, disinfect it carefully with a minimal solution and set it aside for 24 hours; 48 hours if you are paranoid. Virus particles don’t make spores and are not going to last on a surface for a long time. I, personally, am comfortable that 24 hours is long enough, but there is some evidence that it takes 72 hours to be absolutely safe.

And while we’re talking about cameras, don’t forget that memory cards (and in some cases, like video shoots, batteries) get passed around a bit. They need to be disinfected when this happens.

And a note about UV light

Far (not near) UV light kills bacteria fairly effectively and also kills some virus particles, but I do not know how effective it is against Coronavirus. But UV irradiation is generally used to disinfect air, in a location with limited airflow. It’s less effective on surfaces because it’s hard to get the light onto all the surfaces, and I can’t give you any numbers about how much exposure for how long is sufficient to disinfect a surface. (Truth is it will probably vary widely on different types of surfaces.) Right now, at least, UV just isn’t a practical answer.

 

Roger Cicala

Lensrentals.com

March, 2020

 

Addendum: Since I wrote this a new study, which seems good and is referenced in several comments, said the following:

  • Aerosol viability in the air is up to 3 hours.
  • Rough surfaces, like cardboard, up to 24 hours.
  • Plastic surfaces up to 3 days.

Again, these are lab tests attempting to see how long is possible. Changes in temperature or humidity may reduce the actual infectious time of virus particles, this is a ‘long as can be’ scenario.

This is early data and studies are being release pretty frequently at the moment. This one suggests some slightly different numbers.

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Equipment
  • beverins

    Just as an update for future readers: the WHO now recommends aerosol protection guidelines for the SARS-cov-2 virus. It isn’t as efficient as measles is, but it can hang around in the air for some hours

  • Oaxaca Video Guides

    A friend of mine has an auto detailing shop and uses ozone generators in a closed up vehicle to eliminate certain types of odors. Obviously the vehicle must be well ventilated after being filled with zone but I was wondering if that might not be a safe way to sanitize equipment. Possible by using and ozone generator in an enclosed space (ie box, etc.) to disinfect camera equipment. Your thoughts?

    Great article and very informative. Thank you very much for providing it!

  • Addendum: Since I wrote this a new study, which seems good and is referenced in several comments, said the following:

    Being referenced in the comments, the new peer review process for all scientific data. Also, “seems” good, is that a scientific term we are not familiar with?

  • David Mercer

    Very useful article. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience. I regularly use 99% isopropyl alcohol to clean my camera, lenses, laptop, etc with no issues over the years. However, it is so tough to find now.

    Wondering if rubbing alcohol with 70% alcohol would be suitable for cleaning gear (and bleach solution for tripods, etc)?

  • J Thorn

    Short wavelength UV is being used to decontaminate N95 masks for reuse when new masks are in short supply. There are several published small studies on this in PubMed but perhaps the best, most recent practical guide is the University of Nebraska’s N95 Filtering FacepieceRespirator Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) Process for Decontamination and Reuse. The PDF is online at www DOT nebraskamed DOT com/sites/default/files/documents/covid-19/n-95-decon-process.pdf

    I would be hesitant to subject the non-glass non-metal parts of a camera or lens to this level of UV on a repeated basis.

  • TigerlilyPeatfingers

    Thanks for this article – it’s the most comprehensive and clear one I’ve seen so far about which cleaning products work effectively and which definitely do not. And not just for camera equipment, this advice is valid all over. Very useful!

  • Ronak Sharma

    I have two precious Leica lenses that recently got discontinued. Leica elmar-m 24mm f/3.8 & summarit-m 90mm f/2.4. Being in home isolation, I though I should clean and maintain the equipment I have. I just noticed fungus growth on the inside of both the lenses. Is there a way to remove fungus from manual Leica lenses? Will Leica service accept it for service?

  • Ilya Zakharevich

    [Duplicate to avoid filtering]

    Actually, I went through (ALL!) of
    ??/2020/03/23/face-masks-much-more-than-you-wanted-to-know/
    on slatestarcodex dot com. Essentially, I can summarize this hundred (?) of pages as:
    ?• There is no conclusive results on how well surgical masks protect YOU.
    ?• The inconclusive results: both surgical masks and respirators give quite good a protection.
    ?• As used by health professionals, respirators do not provide a much better protection.

    (Successful “fitting” is required for respirators. Apparently, health professionals cannot, on average.)

  • There are lots of papers now (mostly released after this post was written) about survival rates. They results vary somewhat so quoting one is not an end-all-be-all. More information is always better.

  • Ilya Zakharevich

    In a different place, I put a link to Economist’s rendition of this paper. Just in case, I repeat it here:

    go to www economist com appending

    ??/graphic-detail/2020/03/19/how-long-can-the-novel-coronavirus-survive-on-surfaces-and-in-the-air

  • Ilya Zakharevich

    [Triplicate in case of filtering of HTML]

    Thanks a lot for a detailed heads up!

    On the other hand, it is a pity that you spread the disinformation, like everybody else.

    (A)

    Contrary to what you say, surgical masks ARE effective as a protecting

    measure. It is just that their “effectiveness” is measured by very

    small numbers (like 40% effectiveness in filtration [vs 95% for N95],

    and 7–8% effectiveness in protection against some common viruses [did

    not see anything related to coronas specifically]).

    (These small benefits should be, of course, weighted against possible big benefits if somebody else uses your mask…)

    (B)

    Somebody else already posted a link to a paper survival rates on

    different surfaces. Here is the reference to a popular retelling of

    this paper:go to www economist com appending

    ??/graphic-detail/2020/03/19/how-long-can-the-novel-coronavirus-survive-on-surfaces-and-in-the-air

  • Ilya Zakharevich

    Does this mean that if your infected worker touches the camera after the camera is cleaned, the camera may be infected?

  • Nigel Robinson

    Hi Roger, I measured the solution strength you mentioned (20ml of 5.25% bleach to a liter of water) at pH 7.6. (The pH meter is sitting in buffer in the wine glass). https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e5c4fd5a0bb07d9731e917988fe0bb68451d38b857b7ff672422d2f545d2c347.jpg

  • Michael Khalsa

    Hi Roger,
    While somewhat off topic, I know that in some clinics in south india where i lived for awhile, there was experiments with washing surfaces with specially cultivated bacterial solutions (the good bacteria), as a much cheaper and supposedly effective alternative. I can also attest that if too high a concentration is used, it smells horrible and difficult to get rid of the smell.

    In my opinion what Kindle is saying has some sound basis for individuals, i.e., someone with a healthy bacterial balance, clean gut, etc, could very well have better protection by not washing their hands too often – however, what kindle is not addressing is a commercial space with many employees, changing conditions and day to day variations – and the importance of maintaining a standard both for customers and the health of employees.

    I do not think any of us would want to go to a restaurant where the staff did not frequently wash their hands or keep surfaces clean. In contrast, we can mention rubbing our hands in dirt for its natural antibiotic properties, followed by a quick rinse, and then eating food served on banana leaves placed on dirt floors, and how much this gives a natural protection (which it does), but that is not relevant to how many of us live in the west or appropriate.

  • Nicholas Bedworth

    Thanks so much for the fear and loathing free, sober (despite all the discussion about alcohol) presentation. Keep calm and carry on. BTW my recollection is that “denaturing” of alcohol is done by adding 1% aviation gasoline. Pretty toxic stuff, apart from the vile taste. And as mentioned, it’s highly flammable and burns with a extremely hot flame.

  • I’m afraid I just don’t have the information to answer. I know it’s effective, but no idea about the concentration and time required, or whether ozone might adversely effect the equipment.

  • cheights

    How is ozone for killing virus. I have an onzone generator I used to remove odors from a rental space that had gotten smoked up but I just read that ozone is effective in in CPAP machines for keeping masks and tubing clean of bacteria and viruses. Any application for photography?

  • Tuolumne

    The thing to consider is not the contents of the package or mail but the packaging itself. The packaging has been handled by other people right up until you receive it.

  • Your point is pertinent. We discussed masks, but here in the US there is a severe shortage and all businesses that have them have been asked to donate them to hospitals and not to purchase them. So we have been aggressively spreading our new reduced work force out to try to minimize aerosol spread with distancing.

  • NJOceanView

    This is such an outstanding article for photographers and even the general populace. Thank you for articulating it so well.

  • FramerMCB

    Roger, once again you prove to be an invaluable resource! All I can say is thank you! And please thank your Team there at LensRentals too! Moreover, the way you write, and your consummate attention to detail and thoroughness are nothing short of miraculous in this time of craziness (and at any time, from my experience).

    May God continue to bless and keep you safe. And the Team there at Lensrentals.

    Thank you so much!

    Sincerely,

    A happy hobbyist in Oregon.

  • Nigel, you are deputized! Go do science!!!! 🙂

  • Most of the photos we are reusing spray bottles from various sources that are relabelled and contain either 70% alcohol, dilute bleach, or oxygenating agents depending on the use.

  • Totally agree, Apratim, but I figure it’s gonna stain a lot.

  • Thank you, Roger. That’s one of the clearest and most comprehensive explanations of this stuff I’ve seen, whether for photography equipment or not.

    Dan

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