Most of the time, we can count on our clothes to offer us protection from the outside world. In the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, however, it’s easy to see them as a potential threat — particularly if you’re not sure how you should be washing them. If you've arrived home from errands concerned about how long coronavirus live on your clothes, it may offer comfort that by staying vigilant, you can safely re-wear favorite pieces and dress how you please.
According to infectious disease experts, laundry isn’t something you should be losing sleep over if you’re employing good habits like thorough hand-washing and avoiding touching your face, as well as practicing social distancing and staying home if you can. That said, there are precautions you can take to stay safe and get some peace of mind. And luckily these recommendations are easy to make part of your daily and weekly routine throughout this time.
Whether you’re considering making that long overdue trip to the laundromat this weekend or are taking care of a sick partner or roommate, here’s what experts have to say about how to protect yourself.
Should You Change Your Clothes Immediately After A Trip To The Store?
While many grocery stores have implemented social distancing protocols such as limiting the number of people inside at a time and offering a seniors-only shopping hour in the morning, any high-traffic place is going to have some risk of exposure.
“People should indeed be changing their clothes after going to places that are currently attended by hundreds of people every day such as grocery stores,” says Brandon Brown, an epidemiologist in the University of California, Riverside, School of Medicine. “People are going there every day for food and supplies, and there will be people who go that are sick.”
Some experts say this isn’t necessary as long as you maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others. Then, infectious droplets won’t have the chance to reach you, even if a sick person coughs or sneezes in your direction — and if they somehow did, you would have to touch the exact spot they landed within the few hours the virus is likely infectious. Finally, you would have to touch your face before washing your hands.
“This whole chain of events is extraordinarily unlikely,” says Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital.
“This is a respiratory virus, so it needs to get from a sick person’s respiratory system into yours to cause infection,” says Roberto Viau Colindres, M.D., an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center. “It is not transmitted through the skin or through contact with clothes.”
Where you should be cautious, though, is if you touch your face with your sleeves after you return; if so, you may want to wear short sleeves and wash your hands and forearms, change your shirt, or remove whatever outer layer you were wearing.
What's The Best Detergent and Temperature Setting To Use?
Even if you usually wash your clothes in cold water and dry them on low, for now, you should switch to the warmest appropriate settings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Otherwise, use your standard detergent and launder as usual.
“Coronavirus is not a particularly sturdy virus and any soap will destroy it,” says Viau Colindres. “The virus’s protein also gets denatured easily with heat, so hot water is also probably enough to kill it. Think about when you heat an egg white — the protein changes so much that it loses its physical characteristics. In the case of this virus, it stops doing its function and is deactivated.”
Are Some Materials Safer To Wear Than Others?
While there’s no data yet on how long SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, lives on different textiles, we do have an idea of how it behaves on hard surfaces. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles recently published a study that found that the virus is detectable “up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel” — though the levels drop off quickly in the interim.
Still, the parts of your clothing most hospitable to the virus may be the ones you’re probably touching several times a day. (Fortunately, they have a very small surface area and are generally easy to wipe down.)
“[The virus] is more likely to survive longer on solid surfaces like plastic and metal than fabrics, so will survive longer on buttons or zippers for example,” says Blumberg. “It will last shorter periods of time on porous surfaces like fabrics, and likely shorter on more porous fabrics like cotton compared to artificial fibers like polyester.”
If You Have To Go To The Laundromat Or Dry Cleaner, What Precautions Should You Take?
“Protecting yourself from coronavirus in a laundromat is no different than protecting yourself in any other public situation,” says Brian Labus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Put some distance between yourself and other people, minimize direct contact with them, and wash your hands regularly.”
While you should avoid getting too close to your neighbor if you’re standing at the machines, he said, you don’t need to worry that their dirty clothes are in the adjacent washer.
Dr. Shirin Peters, an internist at Bethany Medical Clinic of New York, advises putting on gloves and outerwear for the trip and removing them at your front door when you get back. “Avoid touching any surfaces with bare hands,” she says.
"It’s everyone’s responsibility to do their part to stop the spread of the virus, so don’t go to the laundromat if you’re sick, even if you’re just dropping off," says Viau Colindres.
Like most essential businesses these days, many laundromats and dry cleaners have made adjustments to keep customers and employees safe. CD One Price Cleaners, a chain of 36 laundry stores in the Midwest, has rolled out a 24/7 express drop-off service at many of its locations to reduce person-to-person interaction and has ramped up its cleaning and sanitizing protocols. It is also offering free wash-and-fold service to health care workers and first responders up to 20 pounds per week through the end of April.
New York City’s largest laundromat chain, Clean Rite Center, has set up “social distancing zone” markers on its floor, removed access to seating to limit customers’ time in stores together, and launched a wash, dry, and bag service that matches its self-service price. Because the stores are open 24 hours, Peter Stern, the company’s senior vice president, advises coming at off-peak hours — either late at night or early in the morning.
Can You Track The Coronavirus Inside On Your Shoes?
“We think shoes are incredibly low-risk for this,” says Daniel Pastula, associate professor of neurology, infectious diseases, and epidemiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Colorado School of Public Health.
Because you probably aren’t touching the bottoms of your shoes regularly, there’s little chance that you might into contact with infectious droplets there, and even less that you might then touch your face before washing your hands.
In fact, he says, the CDC doesn’t even advise health care professionals to wear shoe covers when treating COVID-19 patients.
Is It Safe To Handle Laundry Of Someone Who Has COVID-19?
If you're living with or taking care of someone with the virus, you may have to handle their laundry. In short, it's safe to do so, but take reasonable precautions. “You have to treat the laundry of someone who is sick as potentially contaminated,” says Pastula. “So one tip that you can use is maybe having a separate hamper for it and lining it with something like a plastic bag, for instance, that can be thrown away after.”
The CDC also recommends wearing disposable gloves when handling the dirty laundry of someone infected (or potentially infected) with the virus and discarding them after each use. If you don’t have any of these gloves on hand — and Costco is still sold out — a reusable pair will do, but make sure to remove them carefully and avoid using them for any purpose other than disinfecting and cleaning surfaces for the coronavirus.
You shouldn’t shake out the laundry before putting it in the wash in case that spreads infected droplets, says Pastula, but according to CDC guidelines, it’s OK to launder these clothes with your own. “The idea is that the detergent and drying will essentially inactivate all the virus,” he says.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support.