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Viral video advises washing fruit and vegetables with soap. Here's why that's a bad idea.

Washing vegetables in a sink.
(Image: © Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Today (March 30) Dr. Jeffrey VanWingen emailed Live Science to say that "the video was made ahead of various experts weighing in. As we move forward I have reviewed the emerging opinions, consulting with many. We are working to edit the video right now to recommend that fruits and vegetables be washed with running water as your article outlines."

Despite what a doctor in a viral video suggests, it's not a good idea to wash fruits and vegetables with soap and water, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, food scientists told Live Science. 

"We've known for 60 years that there are toxicity issues about consuming household dish soaps," Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, told Live Science. "Drinking dish soap or eating it can lead to nausea, can lead to [an] upset stomach. It's not a compound that our stomach is really built to deal with."

Instead, people should wash produce as they normally would, with cold water, Chapman said.

Related: Coronavirus in the US: Latest COVID-19 news and case counts 

Dr. Jeffrey VanWingen, who works in private practice as a family doctor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, posted the video to YouTube on March 24. Since then, it's been seen about 16.5 million times. 

"I felt an urgency to get the word out to people that despite the stay-at-home order [in Michigan], we need to use caution when we go out," VanWingen told Live Science. "That's really the most important piece of the message: If you don't have to go out, don't. But if you must, to get food, do so with caution."

In the video, he advises people to spend as little time in the grocery store as possible, to wipe down shopping carts with disinfectant, and to go shopping for those older than 60 years old, as they might have a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Prevention and Disease Control (CDC).

Related: How long does the new coronavirus last on surfaces?

But other advice VanWingen gives is less scientifically sound. For instance, VanWingen advises people to keep new groceries in a garage or porch for at least three days, if possible. (Later, in his interview with Live Science, VanWingen said this didn't apply to refrigerated or frozen goods.) Then, VanWingen suggests that containers bought at the store be disinfected or discarded. 

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that the virus could stay on cardboard for 24 hours and plastic and stainless steel for 72 hours, although the overall concentration fell significantly by that time. But the practice of quarantining and then sanitizing food containers before putting them in the refrigerator or pantry isn't necessary, Chapman said.

"We don't have any evidence that food or food packaging are transmission vehicles for coronavirus," Chapman said. 

As for VanWingen's disinfecting suggestion, "it's not based on any science," Chapman said. A better way to handle new groceries is to put them away and then wash your hands with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer, Chapman said. "It's not to say that washing my hands is magical, but it's as effective as what he's suggesting."

Hand cleaning is key, said Donald Schaffner, a specialist in food science and a distinguished professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. You should clean your hands after returning from the store. "And if you're still feeling worried after you put all your groceries away, wash your hands and/or use hand sanitizer," he said. Also, clean your hands before preparing a meal and before eating. 

"You know what? That was good advice even before the pandemic," Schaffner said. "And it's going to be good advice after the pandemic, too." (Schaffner expands on these ideas in his Twitter thread about VanWingen's video.)

As for people concerned about food packaging harboring the virus, "I get it," Schaffner said. "But here's the thing, it's probably not on food. And even if it is on food, it's not going to make you sick from eating that food."

As Chapman told Live Science in a previous interview, in theory, coronaviruses do not survive well in the very acidic stomach.

Rinsing produce

In the video, VanWingen suggests pre-soaking produce in soapy water and then washing it with soap for 20 seconds. But doing this could lead to health problems, such as mild gastrointestinal irritation with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. That's because produce is porous, so it can absorb soap, Chapman said. 

"Consumers should not wash fruits and vegetables with detergent or soap," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "These products are not approved or labeled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use on foods. You could ingest residues from soap or detergent absorbed on the produce."

Although not mentioned in the video, the internet is rampant with other unscientific advice, such as using a dilute bleach solution, lemon juice or vinegar to wash produce during the COVID-19 outbreak. Again, there's no scientific evidence that any of these work, Chapman said. In addition, ingesting bleach is dangerous, he said.

Related: 13 Coronavirus myths busted by science

Furthermore, there is no evidence that vegetable soaps can destroy SARS-CoV-2, or any other virus for that matter, as there's been no scientific studies saying as much, Chapman said.

Instead, "rinse fresh fruits and vegetables with running cold water," Chapman said. "That may remove 90 to 99% of what's there." 

However, the food scientists did agree with VanWingen on one major point.

"Your biggest risk from groceries and coronavirus is the time that you spend in the grocery store around people who either have the coronavirus and have symptoms or asymptomatic people who are in the grocery store," Schaffner said. "That's the big risk right there."

Originally published on Live Science. 

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  • whatkindofscienceisthis
    I haven't seen the video and I don't have a strong opinion on whether I should wash produce with soap or not, but this article does not convince me that I shouldn't. It does convince me that livescience.com doesn't have very trustworthy writers/editors when it comes to science, and that Chapman should not be quoted on public health issues...
    The advice to keep goods in a garage or porch for at least three days, to let the virus die on packaging, is perfectly scientifically sound. If Van Wingen didn't clarify it doesn't apply to non-refrigerated/frozen goods, that's a good lesson for him that you can't assume any common sense when communicating with a broad audience, but it doesn't make the advice less sound.
    "We don't have any evidence..." is a dumb quote. I don't know whether it's Chapman's worldview that only peer-reviewed studies on this specific virus count as evidence, or the quote was taken out of context by the author, but it's completely obvious that food and food packaging can be a transmission vehicle. If someone coughs or sneezes on either one in the store, and you touch it, and then touch your face, that is a 100% plausible transmission vehicle.
    "Not based on any science" is a dumb accusation. It is based on science, the science of soap killing this virus. It's probably better (since soap residue is harmful) to just wash your hands after putting the groceries away, and then wash your hands every time after touching any of the groceries and ideally before touching anything else, but that is a lot harder than just leaving most of your groceries untouched for 3 days, or washing them with soap if you need them sooner. It's even better to not touch your face ever, in which case it doesn't matter if everything you touch is infected, but that's even harder for many people...
    "In theory"! This is hilarious because by Chapman's standard there's "no evidence" that this virus does not survive well in the stomach. There have been no studies published on it. But it's almost definitely true based on other coronaviruses, just like it's true that food packaging can be a transmission vehicle just like any other surface...

    Sure it's probably not on food. At this point with most people being careful, it's probably not on any particular surface you can name. If you take no precautions at all besides not standing near someone who is coughing/sneezing, you will probably not become infected, you're probably 99% safe. If you also wash your hands a lot, you're probably 99.99% safe. Everything else is just reducing a small (individual) chance of infection, to an even smaller chance.
    The sentence "Furthermore, there is no evidence that vegetable soaps can destroy..." is incredibly misleading because it doesn't begin with "Although normal soaps do destroy SARS-CoV-2...". Also I don't know what vegetable soaps are, but if they clean with the same mechanism as normal soap, then there is tons of evidence.
    "That may remove 90-99%" is a stupid statement to make. Assuming it's true... who wants to remove only 90-99% of a potentially fatal virus??? The whole point of using soap is that it destroys 100% of the virus! Washing hands with water is insufficient because the virus is "sticky", why would produce be any different?Also: What are the chances of getting nausea or upset stomach after eating produce that was briefly washed with soap? I'm going to guess 1%. Are there long-term consequences? I'm guessing there aren't. Is the tradeoff something like a 1 in 100 chance of upset stomach vs a 1 in 100,000 chance of dying from coronavirus? I'd probably take the upset stomach (and at that point, maybe consider no longer washing produce, if it happens).
    Reply
  • Nobody
    We wash our plates with soap and then eat off the plates. Does that also leave a residue?
    Reply
  • The vet
    Having lived in China for twenty years I learned the hard way to ALWAYS wash fruit and veggies with soap and water, rinse well, IT WORKS. Then these morons say this:
    "We've known for 60 years that there are toxicity issues about consuming household dish soaps," Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, told Live Science. "Drinking dish soap or eating it can lead to nausea, can lead to upset stomach. It's not a compound that our stomach is really built to deal with."
    You are NOT consuming soap you mental midgets, good God what idiots!
    Reply
  • jattered
    Nobody said:
    We wash our plates with soap and then eat off the plates. Does that also leave a residue?
    plates are not porous. at least not the surface, and no soap will get stuck in there if you wash them nicely.
    Reply
  • jattered
    The vet said:
    Having lived in China for twenty years I learned the hard way to ALWAYS wash fruit and veggies with soap and water, rinse well, IT WORKS. Then these morons say this:
    "We've known for 60 years that there are toxicity issues about consuming household dish soaps," Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, told Live Science. "Drinking dish soap or eating it can lead to nausea, can lead to upset stomach. It's not a compound that our stomach is really built to deal with."
    You are NOT consuming soap you mental midgets, good God what idiots!
    if you really need to use those mean words to prove a point, you need help. also, if you read the article, it make sense because it says these foods are porous and soap would get stuck in there. if you're doing this for many years and not getting stomach aches then good for you. you calling others mental for simple issues like this proves that there is irony in your statement.
    Reply
  • geommm
    You read my mind!


    whatkindofscienceisthis said:
    I haven't seen the video and I don't have a strong opinion on whether I should wash produce with soap or not, but this article does not convince me that I shouldn't. It does convince me that livescience.com doesn't have very trustworthy writers/editors when it comes to science, and that Chapman should not be quoted on public health issues...
    The advice to keep goods in a garage or porch for at least three days, to let the virus die on packaging, is perfectly scientifically sound. If Van Wingen didn't clarify it doesn't apply to non-refrigerated/frozen goods, that's a good lesson for him that you can't assume any common sense when communicating with a broad audience, but it doesn't make the advice less sound.
    "We don't have any evidence..." is a dumb quote. I don't know whether it's Chapman's worldview that only peer-reviewed studies on this specific virus count as evidence, or the quote was taken out of context by the author, but it's completely obvious that food and food packaging can be a transmission vehicle. If someone coughs or sneezes on either one in the store, and you touch it, and then touch your face, that is a 100% plausible transmission vehicle.
    "Not based on any science" is a dumb accusation. It is based on science, the science of soap killing this virus. It's probably better (since soap residue is harmful) to just wash your hands after putting the groceries away, and then wash your hands every time after touching any of the groceries and ideally before touching anything else, but that is a lot harder than just leaving most of your groceries untouched for 3 days, or washing them with soap if you need them sooner. It's even better to not touch your face ever, in which case it doesn't matter if everything you touch is infected, but that's even harder for many people...
    "In theory"! This is hilarious because by Chapman's standard there's "no evidence" that this virus does not survive well in the stomach. There have been no studies published on it. But it's almost definitely true based on other coronaviruses, just like it's true that food packaging can be a transmission vehicle just like any other surface...

    Sure it's probably not on food. At this point with most people being careful, it's probably not on any particular surface you can name. If you take no precautions at all besides not standing near someone who is coughing/sneezing, you will probably not become infected, you're probably 99% safe. If you also wash your hands a lot, you're probably 99.99% safe. Everything else is just reducing a small (individual) chance of infection, to an even smaller chance.
    The sentence "Furthermore, there is no evidence that vegetable soaps can destroy..." is incredibly misleading because it doesn't begin with "Although normal soaps do destroy SARS-CoV-2...". Also I don't know what vegetable soaps are, but if they clean with the same mechanism as normal soap, then there is tons of evidence.
    "That may remove 90-99%" is a stupid statement to make. Assuming it's true... who wants to remove only 90-99% of a potentially fatal virus??? The whole point of using soap is that it destroys 100% of the virus! Washing hands with water is insufficient because the virus is "sticky", why would produce be any different?Also: What are the chances of getting nausea or upset stomach after eating produce that was briefly washed with soap? I'm going to guess 1%. Are there long-term consequences? I'm guessing there aren't. Is the tradeoff something like a 1 in 100 chance of upset stomach vs a 1 in 100,000 chance of dying from coronavirus? I'd probably take the upset stomach (and at that point, maybe consider no longer washing produce, if it happens).
    Reply
  • 30kvu
    1) There is a big difference between detergent (synthetic) and soap. Surprising that a food scientist and USDA don't recognize this and use these words more carefully/accurately. Soap suds enemas and some oral laxatives are FDA approved and made of soap. In addition, if you don't wash produce in 3rd world countries in soap you will find out the result (and you definitely will not need a laxative!)

    2) USDA food safety rules were made for conditions in the US, where bacteria are the major concern and water with brushing is all that is needed. When a virus becomes the major concern, for example hepatitis A in 3rd world countries, norovirus, corona virus, and the consequences change - death vrs food poisoning discomfort, then the choice of how to wash things will change.

    3) The major route of transmission of COVID19 is not known (respiratory vrs orally) and it would be prudent to error on the side of caution when deciding what to wash produce with. For any elderly person with risk factors that choice should be obvious -- soap and water.
    Reply
  • charlie1939
    The previous commenters make a lot of good points! But...

    My issue is that in the article, one theme is that "if there is no peer reviewed study, then the issue is not valid." The important thing to always remember, is that no information does not make a point invalid. it just means that someone needs to actually test the hypothesis!!

    Further, in regards to the soap detergent question, a good rinsing is all that is necessary to rinse off the majority of the soap/detergent and you won't get sick or even have an upset stomach.

    We have not had any ill-effects from using THIS process: fill the sink with warm water to a depth of 4-6 inches, give it a shot of dish detergent (as if setting up to wash dishes), dump the fruits or vegetables in so they are covered with the water and rub each one to make sure the solution covers the entire surface. Scrub rough items like potatoes with a brush. Let all these items sit in the soltion for at least 5 minutes. Then remove them in a collander or sieve and rise thoroughly (a couple of minutes) with a spray of fresh water from the tap. Drain and air dry on a clean surface. Store in the usual way, fridge, closet, pantry or usual place, after they are completely dry.

    Keep healthy, avoid the corona virus...
    Reply
  • Mhays
    jattered said:
    plates are not porous. at least not the surface, and no soap will get stuck in there if you wash them nicely.

    So, if we use known science, we know that dose makes the poison. This is a common discussion in the UK since their style of dishwashing *does* leave residue on plates, and more importantly forks and spoons that actually go in your mouth.

    First of all, drink from a sink of soapy (and he actually means detergent-y) water with a jet of soap in it is unlikely to kill you or make you sick, as anybody who has ever bathed a baby or small child knows. (see https://www.babycenter.com/404_is-it-normal-for-my-baby-to-drink-bathwater_3652421.bc) So, even if fruits and vegetables are as porous as you say, you're not getting a poisonous dose. But also: try soaking your fruits and veg in food coloring and see if they actually change color? Porous is also relative (and FWIW, there is a degree to which plates are porous too.)

    I don't think this doctor is giving advice that will do anything other than make already panicky people feel better. I don't agree that his methods are necessary - but let's not go overboard and use bad science to say that his methods are dangerous.
    Reply
  • Mhays
    Washing cantaloupes with soap was recommended by health departments during the 2011 listeria outbreak. https://www.statefoodsafety.com/Resources/Resources/wash-that-cantaloupe
    Reply