How cleaning your laundry can help contain COVID-19
Written by Mark Brezinski
Updated March 11, 2020
As the number of COVID-19 infections worldwide continues to rise, it’s important for us all to do our part in limiting its spread. The best way to do that is simply by frequently and thoroughly washing your hands. But what about your clothes?
According to the CDC, coronaviruses like COVID-19 can survive on surfaces anywhere from a few hours to a few days. While it’s more likely to catch COVID-19 from hard surfaces that are frequently touched, like door knobs or railings, there is still a chance it can be transmitted via your clothes.
The facts about viruses living on clothing
While research is still being done, we do know COVID-19 is mainly being spread via droplets emitted during coughing or sneezing. As such, the most effective precautionary measures are to:
- Stay two meters away from anyone who’s coughing or sneezing.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Frequently wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
It’s currently not known how well this specific strain of coronavirus can survive by clinging to materials such as cloth. If it’s similar to past strains of the virus, it could survive anywhere from about two hours to a few days.
What we do know is that soft surfaces, like your clothes, are likely to be worse incubators for COVID-19 than hard, frequently-touched surfaces, like door knobs and countertops. When dealing with hard surfaces, a simple disinfectant should suffice-the EPA has posted a list of cleaners that should be effective at sanitizing surfaces after exposure to COVID-19.
Should you change the way you do laundry?
While the CDC doesn’t specifically outline any changes to your typical laundry routine, they do provide a list of best practices when doing laundry for someone who’s ill:
- Ideally, wear disposable gloves and discard them after each use. When using reusable gloves, only use those gloves for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces infected with COVID-19—do not use them for any other household purpose. Wash your hands immediately after using the gloves.
- If you aren’t using gloves when handling dirty laundry, be sure to thoroughly wash your hands afterwards.
- Try to not shake the dirty laundry. Shaking the laundry carries a possibility of dispersing the virus through the air.
- If possible, use the warmest water setting on your washer and ensure items are dried completely afterwards.
- Dirty laundry from an ill person can be washed with other people’s items.
- If possible, consider placing a bag liner in your hamper that’s disposable or can be laundered. Otherwise, ensure the hamper itself is washed and sanitized.
How often should you be washing clothes right now?
Unless you’re actively dealing with someone infected with COVID-19, you can keep washing your laundry the normal amount. If you are coming into contact with someone infected with the virus, however, it’s probably a good idea to launder your clothes afterwards to ensure you’re limiting the virus’s ability to spread.
Again, while doing your laundry can help reduce some risk of spreading the virus, it’s nowhere near as effective as consistently washing your hands.
Does washing clothes kill viruses like coronavirus?
This is a tricky question, because the technically correct answer might be misleading. In short, no, washing your clothes won’t kill COVID-19, but it will still clean it off of your clothes.
The CDC offers these definitions for “cleaning” and “disinfecting”:
- Cleaning refers to the removal of germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces. Cleaning does not kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.
- Disinfecting refers to using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces. This process does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but by killing germs on a surface after cleaning, it can further lower the risk of spreading infection.
Basically, washing your clothes will clean them, but won’t disinfect them. Even if your washer and dryer have sanitize modes, those are unlikely to kill the virus. According to our in-house laundry expert, lab manager Jonathan Chan, “Flu viruses denature at about 167°F—most sanitize cycles don’t go above 150°F.” Fortunately, you don’t really need to kill COVID-19, you just need to get rid of it. And that’s where cleaning your clothes can help. During the wash cycle, the agitation and detergent will likely scrub the COVID-19 off the infected clothes and flush it out with the wastewater.
Can you get coronavirus from using a laundromat or your apartment’s laundry facilities?
The most likely way you would contract COVID-19 from a public laundry facility is by touching hard surfaces that were recently touched by someone infected with COVID-19, such as the handle to a washer or dryer. As such, just make sure you wash your hands after using the facility. Even if someone has done a big load of laundry that’s covered in COVID-19, it will likely have flushed out with the wastewater during a wash.
The bottom line: Do your laundry, but really focus on keeping your hands washed
Again, while it’s a good idea to wash your laundry—especially if you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19—you’re unlikely to spread the virus via unwashed clothes. It’s not impossible, just unlikely. It’s far more important to simply stay two meters away from folks who are coughing or sneezing and to remember to keep thoroughly washing your hands.