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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
  • Thanks for this inputs,
    Still, I can see on these pictures that your staff do not wear mask at all.
    If one is sneezing and is infected without symptom as many, does this is considered as “best safe practice”?
    Does wearing a mask under this conditions should be recommended to no infect the gear you just cleaned?
    (Again, I’m talking about people infected without symptom but contagious)

  • Apratim Mukherjee

    Dear Roger, I am a great fan of your work for a long time and today my respect increased learning you are a physician.
    I am a pharmacist and I would like to point out that you missed povidone-iodine. It’s very effective for this coronavirus (or for anything, bacteria, fungi, virus) and works very well in even 0.2% concentration. It’s generally regarded as safe and easily available. Can you please update your post with this? Rather than reading it in the comments from a newbie like me, it’s better if it comes from your mouth!!!
    Thanks for this post!

  • J.L. Williams

    Very clear explanation — thanks!

  • Andreas Werle

    Thanks for this, dear colleague! (didnt know, you are are a physician)

  • Aus Martin

    Great article – yes very weak bleach has been found to kill the virus I believe you can go more diluted and safer for the camera but I see conflicting concentrations being advised.
    Sadly here in Australia cashiers are still handling customers filthy reusable bags, money and handling product while wearing gloves to protect themselves – but all we have purchased could be contaminated.

  • Fid The Lid

    Dear Roger

    Great information considered and a difficult thing to do but better than nothing as you said I think we will all in a way become our own little scientists looking at the graphics FT etc shows the picture. I will visit Tom Wood today photographer in UK and pass on your information you will know his name. I have never in my life commented on any posts so a first for me keep at it. Anything we find out I post I see you are a american company. This is Liverpool England ok.

    Fid The Lid

    Ps all things square you will find us!

  • Ken Owen

    Thanks for that, sir.
    Isopropyl alcohol clouded the inside of the top LCD on my Canon 5D, but that was only because I couldn’t wipe off the excess in time (I’d employed an odd yet effective method for unstickifying a dirty shutter button). Stay well.

  • Chris Jankowski

    I think that Roger had in mind the commonly available “surgical” masks.
    They prevent the surgeon from breathing droplets onto open surgical wound.
    So, they protect the patient, but do not prevent the surgeon from anything.

    What the medical personnel exposed to coronavirus cases want as a minimum is N95 masks with clear plastic face shield. This is an absolute minimum. The full biohazmat suit is actually what is needed.

  • J.L. Williams

    Hello, Roger — Thanks for an unusually calm and sensible treatment of this subject (and I would appreciate it if you would follow through with keeping the thread clean by deleting “pseudoscientific BS things” posted by anonymous self-claimed experts.)

    I do have one question: You state, “Masks protect others from you a bit; they don’t protect you from others.” If that’s the case, why are doctors, nurses, and EMTs so desperate to obtain them? I’m not asking to be a wiseguy; I just want to know what public policy measures I should be supporting.

  • JB

    Thank you for providing the simple sanity of facts. This is something is short supply these days.

  • Because you are saying some things that there is no good evidence to support, along with some very good points. It might be you are more knowledgeable and have access to this information. It might be that you are misinformed. I respect your wish for privacy. You have already stated that you won’t post further, which is all I ask.

    Roger

  • Dragon

    Seems like ozone should work well, but it will rot rubber and plastic pretty fast if you overdo it. Side note- welding is the in profession with lots of ozone. The zinc and cadmium smoke might kill you, but the ozone will keep you safe from Coronavirus :-).

  • tirmite

    Great info as always, Roger. The only thing missing was the cat or dog video. : )

  • Xinogi

    people have a right to know your qualifications

    I ask you to please give an actual name

    If I wanted to reveil my identity, I would have done so, I do not think anyone has a ”right” to my private life.

  • Xinogi, with all respect, when you’re putting out very didactic statements, people have a right to know your qualifications for what you say, and who you actually are so they can evaluate the source. One of the big problems we have right now is everyone from Virologists to Yoga Instructors making factual statements and people need to know the source. I ask you to please give an actual name and a quick idea of your qualifications. An anonymous Discus account makes me anxious for hosting them on this page. If you have reasons for remaining anonymous and would be willing to give me the information directly I will assure you confidentiality and will simply put up an “in my opinion Xinogi’s is qualified to make these statements”. If you aren’t comfortable with that, I ask you to refrain from posting further.

    Roger

  • I am completely comfortable it would be perfectly safe without all the stuff we put it through, just given all the waiting you described. It’s double-secret 007 extra safe after our techs have done their thing, before it got put in a box.

    Remember, our people are cleaning and disinfecting as soon as rented gear arrives back to us, and they’re doing it thoroughly for the best motivation possible: they’re own and their friend’s protection. Then it gets another cleaning disinfecting before it gets packed.

    We were ahead of the curve here; I was giving lectures about sanitary practices and disinfecting to our people, and putting protocols in place before there was a case of COVID-19 in the US.

  • Thank you Nigel, glad you made that point, I didn’t realize it could affect anodizing. I know that 5% is very alkaline, about pH 11 or 12. I don’t know what a dilute solution (0.01%) would be; I’m guessing 8 or 8.5 which isn’t too bad, but that’s me guessing. Do you have the numbers on that?

  • Xinogi

    Those latex gloves in the pictures offer little to no protection against the chemicals you use.

    Hydrocarbons will break down the latex and many of the substances you list can easily permeate and pervade latex gloves.

    Viton gloves are preferred, together with barrier cream.

    The best protection remains the oily layer on the skin of your workers, which is why I wouldn’t recommend they chronically wash their hands, because it removes that layer.

  • Xinogi

    This concept is true for humans too. Bacterial and fungal populations on the skin limit the potential viral load on the skin. Once you wash your hands, you remove those populatons, you remove the oily layer on the skin, and your hands are now primed for a viral infection.

    Does that mean you shouldn’t wash your hands or rigorously clean surfaces that you suspect are infected? No.

    But unless the person or surface is a known carrier of a pathogen or pathobiont, chronically cleaning hands and surfaces might do more harm than good.

  • Xinogi

    Bacterial, fungal and viral populations are in a constant battle on surface areas. Unlike bleach which kills all bacteria, allowing the rapid spread of viruses, bacteriophages allow targeted cleaning of surfaces where only pathogenic types are killed, which limits the potential viral load on the surface.

    The last place you will find coronavirus are forests, due to the competition viruses have from bacteria and fungi populatons.

    The companies that are in high demand right now in Europe, and are using novel ways to clean surfaces, are using non-pathogenic bacteria to cover surfaces, once the surface is covered the likelyhod the virus can attach itself is extremely low. This method is used in local schools here.

  • gon

    Roger, ethanol at 70% is very good at “killing” some viruses, including coronaviruses. Is very ease to prepare from ethanol 96°, the one you can find in a pharmacy.
    And usually gelified alcohol contains alcohol from 60° to 70°

  • Nigel Robinson

    Hi Roger, just a quick note, anything strongly basic (basic being pH greater than 7) will react with aluminium, removing any anodizing and causing discoloration. This includes bleach, peroxide, etc. I know you are not recommending strong solutions.

  • Fred Wabnik

    Roger, thanks for an informative article.

    Purell contains ethyl alcohol, not isopropyl alcohol. It’s less expensive (or so I’ve been told) and, if consumed by, say, a child, is comparatively safe.

    70% isopropyl alcohol (“rubbing alcohol) is more effective as a disinfectant than 99% isopropyl alcohol. Apparently, the additional water in 70% is helpful. But, if you are using alcohol to make a hand sanitizer by mixing it with hand cream, either would be equally effective.

    Using alcohol (or cleaners containing alcohol) on anti-reflection coated eyeglasses is not recommended, because, with repeated use, it damages the coating. I don’t know if that applies to the coatings used on camera lenses. I use AR Kleen lens cleaner (AR-1003). This is the lens cleaner that Costco sells and uses at its eyewear counter. I buy it online in the gallon size (although Costco offers free refills).

  • peter wais

    Roger, your article and perspective are very useful for us all.
    I have a Monochrom coming from you on Monday. So, it will have sat in Cordova all weekend and lived in your box on Fedex until Tuesday when it arrives (and I open it with full excitement).
    Given your procedures and the timeframe described, are you completely comfortable that it will be virus free when I unpack it, or should I wear gloves and give it an isopropyl alcohol wipe immediately?
    Thanks!!!

  • Hunter45

    This is a problem with a virus and has nothing to do with bacteria. I don’t understand your comment.

  • Carleton Foxx

    If your stores are all out of isopropyl alcohol like mine are, try Everclear, a grain alcohol liquor beloved by high-school party animals.
    Depending on your state liquor laws it will be between 75- and 80 percent pure ethanol.
    I will warn you it seems to be much more flammable than isopropyl, and don’t even dream of drinking it; if you’re over 30, one sip and your liver will explode.

  • Thank you! No, I appreciate it getting out there, any chance it helps someone, even if only to feel better, I’m glad about.

  • Athanasius Kirchner

    Roger, as always you’ve done an amazing job. I’m totally sharing your article – it’s a fantastic reference for anyone in these difficult times. I hope you don’t mind.

  • Jim, I just don’t have any experience or knowledge to comment. Maybe someone else can comment.

  • Thank you!

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