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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
  • Thank you

  • JordanViray

    Hydrogen peroxide, even at concentrations lower than commonly found in drugstore preparations, is the active ingredient in many of the FDA approved sanitizers for SARS-CoV-2. Hydrogen Peroxide is an excellent oxidizer and typically performs as well as or better than Chlorine in several studies vs bacteria and viruses. It doesn’t smell as bad and breaks down into water and oxygen.

  • Impulse_Vigil

    Great blog post, thanks!

    Do camera displays usually have an oleophobic coating like phones do? I thought alcohol could wear those out faster, probably not as much of a concern as on a phone tho, thoughts?

    I had a phone a few years ago where the coating definitely started to wear off but I don’t really know whether it was due to time or what I may have cleaned it with… It was pretty obvious where it’d worn off when you moistened the glass or got it really oily tho, a specific area looked different than the rest.

  • Michael Sandman

    Thanks – this is detailed, rational and very helpful, both for photo equipment and for all sorts of surfaces.

  • Henry Winokur

    Thanks, Roger. This is a great article and very much appreciated by me, and I am sure, many others. As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues would say “Let’s be careful out there…” (I’ve posted the link on my FB account and sent it to other photogs I know.)

  • Sergio Petrelli

    Hi Roger, I’m going to link your article on Facebook for my italian friends photographer. Thanks for sharing.
    Sergio Petrelli

  • Kasey Smith

    It should be said that high concentrations of alcohol can cause plastics to cloud, if not wiped away. They’re fine if you remove the alcohol pretty quickly, though.

  • We have them wearing gloves whenever they use a disinfectant, because, honestly, I want handwashing constantly.

  • I’m certain it would shorten the time that the virus can remain infectious on a surface, but I can’t say with any certainty by how much.

  • Thank you Don!

  • Mark Rustad

    Hi Roger and Friends,

    I would also respectfully add: Be very careful exposing lens rubber focusing rings to alcohol (as well as a certain chemicals in disinfectants). Latex rubber products, on a molecular level, are held together by an electrical bond which alcohol can interrupt, causing your now “disinfected” rubber rings to become over a period of days>weeks quite sticky/tacky ( a process I refer to to as Blossoming). While these cleaning agents are indeed excellent disinfectants, they can also reverse the process by which sticky natural rubber latex is made useful (vulcanization>de-vulcanization). This warning also applies to nitrile (synthetic) rubber rings though these will endure such applications at greater strengths for a greater duration before such tackiness Blossoms. 90% alcohol applications to such components is highly discouraged. Respect, Mark

  • Don Gilmore

    Roger I’m going to use part of your article on my Facebook page and give you credit for it. Thanks for sharing

  • Jim A.

    Any thoughts on using ozone to disinfect cameras? I have an ozone generator that we use to “disinfect” our camper from time to time. It seems to do a good job killing whatever creates those stale smells when the camper sits for a while, and I have worked with experimental sterilization systems which used ozone and hydrogen peroxide plasma to disinfect/sterilize surfaces. That killed biological indicators used to test sterilizer effectiveness 100%. I’m curious if just ozone would be effective. Since it’s a gas, it would be easy to get it into contact with all the nooks and crannies on a camera or lens. Not something you’d want to do every day, but it might be useful for those difficult to clean type things. The generators are pretty widely available. Obviously, breathing in the ozone is problematic, but people solve that problem pretty quickly by running away… It would degrade some rubber/polymers with extended use, but for temporary, extra clean, it might be a useful idea to look at.

  • Xinogi

    We are increasingly becoming aware that the virus is unlikely spreading through surface contamination. The latest data from Europe shows the major vector happened in Austria, at a ski resort named Ishgl. They have also identified several asymptomatic superspreaders, of which one was a bartender at the resort.

    Knowing if the virus is spreading through surface contamination or through direct human to human contact is important. The latest data shows that finding (often asymptomatic) superspreaders is the way to halt the spread of the virus.

    There is no evidence that the virus is spreading through surface contamination and the idea that chronic handwashing is helpful is not supported by evidence.

    People who work around Bleach which contains VOC should not wash their hands during working hours because it removes the oily protection layer on their hands, instead they should use barrier creams.

  • bdbender4

    Xinogi, what is the point of your comments? Roger put together something that is clear, simple, straightforward, and in general agreement with other guidance (eg. wash your hands a lot). All you are doing is to add minor distinctions, some denial, and confusion.

    (AFAIK infection rates are still being analyzed, and COVID is already mutating into different strains. Meanwhile it seems logical to assume cautiously that COVID must be mighty infectious compared to other things, for example MERS and SARS and bacterial MRSA. But this is not the place for those discussions.)

  • whereisaki

    Superb. And thorough. Thank you, Roger!

  • jazz1

    Any idea if a dry cabinet would kill virus?

  • Larry Saideman

    Yes, little is known for absolute certain. But, if it is an aerosol, I would think 6 feet would likely not make much difference. Social distancing is still seen as the best action to take at this point to flatten the curve at this point in time regardless. Didn’t know that about dentists.

  • Xinogi

    I would like to dispell the idea that coming into contact with coronavirus therefore means you are infected.

    The mucus layers guard the lungs and digestive tract from viruses, to get infected with coronaviruses you need upwards of 10,000+ viral particles being sneezed on you, the likelyhood that you touch a surface and therefore get infected, is incredibly incredibly low.

    The virus is likely spreading in airports and public transport, it is incredibly UNlikely that it is spreading through survace contamination.

  • Xinogi

    I disagree with washing of hands for your staff.

    Your staff comes into contact with bleach, and therefore VOC, volatile organic compounds. The oily layer on their hands protects them from those VOC to a great degree. Washing of hands removes the oily layer on the skin and allow harmful VOC much easier access to the skin.

    Staff should be given barrier creams instead.

  • Xinogi

    The natural way to kill bacteria from surfaces is the use of viruses called bacteriophages. It is increasingly used in the manufacturing and food industry, and least but not least to treat intestinal E coli infections.

    I hope that people remember that 99% of viruses are good, not harmful, and protect us every single day from bacteria.

  • Kevin McLin

    From what I have read and heard in interviews on the news, it is not certain that this virus cannot be spread by aerosols. Since so little is currently known, it is probably smart to assume that aerosols can spread it. Just to be safe.

    For example, one reason that dentists are being encouraged to reschedule routine checkups and cleanings is that the drills they use for cleaning create aerosols. These can infect dental technicians if the person in the chair is infected. The masks they use do not protect against aerosols because the particles are too small.

  • Pentax Shooter

    Roger Cicala providing the content we need in these trying times.

  • Claudia Muster

    The WHO has published a receipe for a self made hand sanitizer. I tried to post the link, but it was deleted as spam. So here’s the link in a form that hopefully will pass the spam filter:
    www . who . int (slash) gpsc (slash) 5may (slash) Guide_to_Local_Production.pdf

  • Leonardo

    +1

  • Larry Saideman

    A great piece. One point of disagreement. I have read that the virus is not aerosol. It is held within water droplets as from a sneeze and can remain in the air for a time but will fall to a nearby surface. That is different from an aerosol virus such as measles.

  • Michael Ogle

    A question on UV…medical uv (UV-c) is usually around 250 wave length but uv flashlights tend to be 395, UV-A, do they both kill the virus?

  • frankg

    Brewers know not to use chlorine products on stainless steel because it creates microscopic pits in the metal which become breeding grounds for bacteria.

  • sdreamer

    Wow, very informative. Been cleaning my electronics since I was a wee child with isopropyl and never have seen issues with it. I’m wondering though, with all the rage for UV, isn’t UV also what we use to cure a lot of screens to the glass? Also, causes the yellowing in white plastics? I’d imagine it can cause gaskets and plastics to become brittle depending on their exposure to it based on frequency and lifetime duration. I personally wouldn’t use UV for my phone and just wipe it down with some alcohol. Same for all my other electronics.

  • JP

    This article is incredible and written to a standard I haven’t seen on any other COVID-19 notices.
    Thank you for being blunt, thank you for being honest -as we’ve come to expect from every article you write.
    Stay safe, be well!

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