As some folks on social media fret about whether they need to wash or change their clothes to avoid catching COVID-19, infectious-disease experts say you generally don’t need to do so more often than usual — and some even warn that a preoccupation with laundry could come at the cost of taking more important measures like washing your hands.
Still, there are some best practices to follow when you haul dirty clothes to the laundromat.
“The average person should not worry about their clothing,” Sarah Fortune, a professor and chair of the department of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, told MarketWatch in an email. “If you are a health-care provider and potentially subject to a high density of virus, the answer is different. But for most of us, it is all about our hands and face.”
COVID-19 is believed to spread primarily from person to person, between people who are within about six feet of each other and through droplets from a sick person’s cough or sneeze, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. public-health experts and policymakers have urged social distancing to reduce the disease’s spread.
People can possibly contract COVID-19 by touching an infected object or surface “and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes,” but scientists don’t believe this is the main mode of transmission, the CDC says.
A study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine found that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was detectable for up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, up to 24 hours on cardboard, up to four hours on copper, and up to three hours in aerosols.
While not much is known about how this particular virus interacts with clothing and fabric, “coronaviruses in general last a lot longer on a solid, nonporous surface compared to porous fabrics,” Juan Dumois, a pediatric infectious-diseases physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., told MarketWatch. He suggested they would survive better on “artificial fibers” such as polyester than on cotton.
Medical professionals should take extra precautions
Change clothes after being in a crowded area in which people have touched your clothes, said Robert Amler, the dean of New York Medical College’s School of Health Sciences and Practice and a former chief medical officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After being in a public space in which others haven’t brushed up against you, “washing the clothes afterwards is a precaution, but may not be quite as necessary,” he said.
“But it’s still common sense to keep them laundered and clean, and where you have smooth-surface clothing like leather or vinyl, it makes sense to wipe them off if you’ve been in public spaces for extended periods of time,” he added. “These are make-sense recommendations and not scientifically based.”
Harvard Medical School experts advise that caregivers for COVID-19 patients wash laundry thoroughly, removing and washing “clothes or bedding that have blood, stool, or body fluids on them” immediately, and wear disposable gloves to touch the soiled items.
The COVID-19 disease had infected at least 46,450 people in the U.S. by Tuesday morning and killed at least 593, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, there were 387,382 confirmed cases and 16,767 deaths; 101,987 people had recovered as of Tuesday morning.
What you do (and don’t) need to worry about with your clothes
Gabriela Andujar Vazquez, an infectious-disease physician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said that the average person didn’t necessarily need to wash their clothes more often than usual after visiting the grocery store.
“It’s perfectly safe for you to go back home with your regular clothes and just do what you have been doing pre-COVID,” she said.
In fact, it would be more important to wash your hands after touching clothes that somebody coughed on, she said. “Wash your clothes as you usually do,” she said. “Just make sure that you wash your hands.”
Dumois agreed. “Sneeze particles with virus are going to last a lot longer on a desktop or countertop than on somebody’s clothing.”
Faheem Younus, the chief of infectious diseases at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, urged focusing on measures that will yield the biggest return on investment, like staying home when sick, steering clear of sick people, keeping hands clean, avoiding handshakes, and maintaining distance from others.
“Those are the realities that we should be focusing on rather than changing clothes,” he said. “Our biggest bang for buck is social distancing from humans [and] washing our hands … but at the same time, not worrying about surfaces to a point where it paralyzes us.”
After all, while Younus said he empathizes with people’s concerns, “this is going to be our life for the next few months” — and it might be difficult to sustain additional precautionary measures for an extended period of time.
“I think the same people who want to change their clothes and take a shower now — in three weeks, they’ll be shaking hands and they won’t be able to maintain basic hand hygiene. That’s my worry,” he said. “That’s exactly what the virus wants.”
If you do choose to launder your clothes more often…
“Hot water is better than cold,” Dumois said, as coronaviruses tend to be sensitive to higher temperatures. “The heat of a dryer also helps kill coronaviruses,” he added. The soap and water you usually use in your washing machine should be sufficient, said Andujar Vazquez.
And if you’re washing your clothes at a laundromat, be sure to go at a time when it’s not crowded and practice proper hand hygiene.
“Just assume that most of the surfaces in the laundromat are contaminated with somebody’s viruses: the counter tops, the buttons on the machine, the handles to open and close the machine, the buttons on any change machine, the handle on the door to the laundromat to get in and out,” Dumois said. “Do not touch your face until you’ve had a chance to clean your hands.”