Medically reviewed by Michael Spertus, MD.
Next, learn how doctors are protecting themselves from coronavirus.
With more than 19,700 reported coronavirus cases in Canada, the country and local officials are directing people to stay at home.
The hope is that “stay at home” advisories and “shelter in place” orders will slow and eventually stop the spread of COVID-19. It’s still possible for citizens to venture out for essentials such as groceries, medicine, and critical doctor appointments. However, this means that with each outing, there’s a chance for potential virus exposure.
Of course, it’s important to take the proper precautions, such as washing your hands, social distancing, or even possibly wearing gloves. But what about the clothes you wear when you’re out? Could your shirt, jacket, or jeans, too, be exposed to the virus—and if so, how do you safely clean and disinfect your clothes?
Here’s everything you need to know about whether or not washing clothes really protects you against COVID-19.
One of the many concerns about the new coronavirus is how long it can survive on clothing after exposure. No one is certain, though the best guess appears to be up to 12 hours, according to Georgine Nanos, MD, MPH, a board-certified family physician specializing in epidemiology and chief executive officer of Kind Health Group, a company that offers aesthetic care. “This new virus is not heat-resistant and will be killed by a temperature of just 27 Celsius/80.6 Fahrenheit,” Dr. Nanos says. Based on surface testing, she says, it seems to survive on fabric for six to 12 hours—depending on the type of fabric.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, can survive on surfaces for hours. For example, a March 2020 article published in The New England Journal of Medicine found it can live on plastic and stainless steel surfaces up to three days. (Learn what SARS, MERS, and Covid-19 have in common.)
“As we get a deeper dive, we know the virus can live for hours and even days on certain materials, which is a big deal,” says Ken Redcross, MD, board-certified internal medicine physician and concierge doctor in Eastchester, New York. “Flu normally only lives 48 hours, so coronavirus is its own unique entity that we’ve learned can last for a long time, especially on hard, non-porous surfaces. It’s not surprising that it can live on garments, as well.”
However, the lifespan on garments may, thankfully, be shorter. “Viruses like Covid-19 do not survive long on clothing,” assures Karen Hoffmann, RN, immediate past president of Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. “Regular laundering in a home washing machine with regular detergent is sufficient to remove the virus.” Even though the virus is detected for these periods, it is not clear if the virus is viable or just has residual genetic material.
Research indicates that hard surfaces such as metal are easier on the virus. “It lives longer on hard surfaces versus soft surfaces,” says Hoffman, adding “it will die more quickly on porous surfaces.” As a result, metal clothing items such as zippers could also be high-risk and should be handled with care. “If the virus drops on a metal surface, it can live for at least 12 hours,” explains Dr. Nanos. “So if you come into contact with any metal surface, wash your hands as soon as you can, and if nothing is available for handwashing do not touch your face.”
Regardless of the item, after handling any potentially contaminated laundry, be sure to wash your hands immediately. Just make sure you’re not making these common handwashing mistakes.
When you’re out running your errands, whether you’re at the grocery store, the pharmacy, or the gas station, it’s best to assume that everybody you come into contact with is a potential carrier for Covid-19. And also, everything you touch is potentially contaminated with it. For example, if somebody behind you coughs and the droplets land on your clothing, you should proceed as if you (and your clothing) have been exposed. (Plus, here’s what you need to know about ordering food from a restaurant during quarantine.)
“Assume everything is contaminated, and don’t forget about the handle for your gas tank when you’re filling up your car,” says Dr. Redcross. “It’s teeming with organisms that we don’t think about. Even though we’re all quarantined, we all have to grab groceries and get gas.” Some precautions Dr. Redcross takes is making sure he keeps a whole supply of wipes in the car to wipe down handles of doors, and pull the sleeve down. “Then, once you’re home, remove the potentially contaminated item of clothing and put it into a special hamper or bag,” he advises.
Echoing Dr. Redcross’ advice is Dr. Nanos: “If you are, for example, using your elbows or your sleeves to touch frequently used items and potentially contaminated surfaces such as elevator buttons, handrails, and door handles, then if possible you should wash your clothes.”
You may like the idea of changing into “indoor” clothing immediately after being out and about in the world in “outdoor” clothing. It might seem a bit excessive, but is it effective from preventing contamination?
Yes, says Dr. Nanos. “Being in healthcare for most of my life, I’ve always done this anyway, as I am exposed to more infectious diseases than most people. So I think it’s good practice: maybe not necessarily stripping down in the garage, but at least getting in the habit of putting on other clothes once I get home.” She also likes the idea of removing shoes and leaving them in your garage or in your entryway. “That would be ideal. You don’t necessarily have to leave them outside. The idea is to just not track them throughout the house.”
Dr. Redcross has his own method: “Leave shoes by the door when you come in: Have a trash bag and dump them in there. Those aerosolized particles that we don’t see, they’re circulating and you’re not realizing that you’re inhaling them. When you come in, put your shoes in the little plastic baggie and just wrap it.” Although, it is controversial how much the particles are aerosolized.
You could just adopt a practice popular in other cultures and take off your shoes at the door. That’s just good hygiene, says Luke Padwick, MD, Austin Emergency Center. He goes a step further. “I personally wear scrubs and take them off immediately and throw them in the washer on high temp, and then immediately take a shower before doing anything else when I get home from our centers.” His tip is to think of your home as clean and the outside world as dirty. He suggests taking off all clothing before entering into your clean space to avoid bringing any contaminants.
While there’s no current evidence to support leaving your shoes at the door as a measure to prevent Covid-19, says Hoffman, it definitely helps keep the home cleaner.
So the virus can survive on fabrics and your “outdoor” clothing could potentially be contaminated: After you remove your garments home, how do you get it safely clean?
Washing your clothes in the hottest water possible recommended for that material is ideal, says Dr. Nanos. “But don’t go ruining all your clothes by boiling everything. That will add more stress and anxiety that none of us need right now.”
Dr. Redcross has an extensive to-do list when handling and washing potentially contaminated clothing. This starts with protecting your hands. “Please put gloves on when you’re doing laundry. It seems over the top, but it’s very important. Another thing is not to shake clothes out, as you will aerosolize the virus.” He suggests putting clothing into the hottest water it can stand and dry it on high heat.
Do make sure to take special care of delicate items: “Before the shutdown,” says Dr. Redcross, “I was suggesting people get things dry cleaned because that’s super hot. But now that things are shut down, just look at your clothing tags: High heat for some items may be tough, but you want to get the best kill rate. Also, dry on super high heat to make sure you don’t miss any virus particles. We carry a lot of them on ourselves through the day.”
(Psst: Here are some tips to cope with depression during quarantine.)
Many people don’t have private laundry machines, which means washers either in their own buildings or out in public. Dr. Redcross assures that there’s nothing wrong with a laundromat, although he does advice keeping a six-foot distance from others. “Use a machine two to three units down from another person. It’s about the temperature you’re getting. People ask me, ‘well, Doc, do I need bleach?’ but you actually don’t. For certain fabrics bleach is fine, but detergent has more than enough to agitate the organism. It’s all about the temperature.”
Of course, if you’re in a public space, it’s important to use common sense regarding handwashing, hand sanitizer, or wearing gloves while touching hot spots, like lids, doors, or change machines.
And if you don’t have access to laundry facilities, period, you can consider handwashing your clothes—provided you can get the water hot enough. “If you don’t have access to laundry facilities then yes you can hand wash your clothes at home as long as you can get the temperature above 80 degrees,” says Dr. Nanos. “It’s not necessary or better than machine washing. It’s easier and faster if you can wash your clothes in a regular washing machine, which is still totally safe and will kill the virus even if you were washing your clothes with sick people’s clothes.”
If someone is sick at home with Covid-19, you might be terrified about washing their laundry alongside your own clothes, or even anxious about simply using the same machine at different times. According to Dr. Redcross, you shouldn’t worry. “Luckily, the temperature will kill it. Look at your washing machine as a kill zone.”
He understands the anxiety, however, and provides a few best practices. “That’s the whole point of making sure you’re wearing your gloves: you don’t know how much clothing has been contaminated. You can’t go cold. Do hot water, and look at labels to avoid shrinkage—but you want that hot water.” Dr. Redcross also recommends keeping clothing items separated in plastic bags, or keeping separate hampers in their own zones, if possible.
It’s only natural to feel like you’re being a bit excessive about something as commonplace as laundry. Hoffman says excessively worrying about laundry, or doing loads multiple times, isn’t warranted. She recommends to wash your clothes as normal. “During routine public exposure like going to the pharmacy or grocery, if [you’re] maintaining social distancing, then clothing is not considered to be a risk for cross-transmission.” She adds, “Direct contact with respiratory droplets in eyes, nose, or mouth is still considered the most likely means of transmission to prevent infection.”
Dr. Nanos agrees, saying, not to get carried away and obsess about these details. “Normal washing with laundry detergent and the hottest temperature safe for your fabrics is the best course of action. Handwashing will always remain our best line of defense. It’s really important not to lose sight of that.”
Handwashing and vigilance are your two best defenses, says Dr.Redcross. “Plenty of people who aren’t having symptoms are sharing it unknowingly. No matter how you’re feeling or who you’re with, assume that everybody is positive and has been exposed. It’s not overkill—it’s smart and being proactive. Be hyper-vigilant now to bring the curve down.”
Medically reviewed by Michael Spertus, MD.
Next, learn how doctors are protecting themselves from coronavirus.