Now that millions of Americans are being advised to stay at home as much as possible to help limit the spread of the new coronavirus, people are re-evaluating how to manage daily tasks while sticking to social distancing measures.
That includes laundry. Whether you have a washer/dryer in your home or rely on your local laundromat, there are several ways to reduce your risk of viral exposure or spread. Here are some questions and answers, based on interviews with three experts.
How high is the risk of getting infected from clothing?
The simplest answer is that, in most cases, your clothing shouldn’t be your biggest concern. Above all, experts stressed the importance of frequent hand-washing with soap and water (or hand sanitizer, if you have it) as the best preventive measure.
The new coronavirus travels through respiratory droplets, which is why minimizing your exposure to other people through social distancing is the best way to protect yourself.
Some research suggests that although the virus may be able to live for up to three days on surfaces like plastic and steel (think buttons or zippers), the risk of infection from touching these materials is relatively low. Transmission occurs “much more commonly” through droplets than through other objects and materials, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What are “inside clothes,” and do I need them?
As a regular hygienic practice, changing out of clothing you’ve worn outside and taking off your shoes when you enter the home is “generally a good idea,” said Angelique Corthals, a biomedical researcher and professor of pathology at John Jay College.
This is especially true if you have used public transportation or are working outside, she said. If someone sneezes or coughs on you, you should also change out of your clothes. And if you interact with many people at your job, you should change into clean clothing and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
“There’s not a lot of information of how long COVID survives on textiles, but lots of places on your textiles can contain metal or plastic,” Corthals said. “If you’ve touched a contaminated surface with your clothes, sitting in a subway, leaning against a pole, there’s a chance you might bring that back home.”
If you’re largely housebound, there’s no need to think too hard about clothing and contamination.
“If you typically take off your shoes when you come in the door, that’s a good idea for lots of diseases,” said Nellie Brown, the director of workplace health and safety programs at Cornell University. “But you don’t have to act too differently.”
How should I be doing my laundry now?
The CDC recommends using the warmest appropriate setting for washing clothing, towels and bedding, and drying items fully at a high temperature. If you have delicates or other items that can’t withstand high temperatures, now may not be the time to wear them, Corthals said.
Wearing disposable gloves — if you have them — while doing laundry is advisable. But it’s more important to wash your hands as soon as you’ve finished handling laundry, whether you have gloves or not.
Don’t shake out your laundry, ever, because it could disperse the virus through the air. When you’re done, clean and disinfect your laundry hampers, baskets and bags. Lining your hamper with a washable or disposable bag, if you have one, is a good idea. Keeping one bag for dirty clothing and one for clean clothing is another good practice. You can also use disposable plastic bags to carry your clothing.
In terms of washing clothes more than usual, Brown recommended asking yourself: What have you been doing with those clothes that you’re concerned about? If you’re a health care provider on the front lines of the virus, your concerns may be more urgent than those of a person who is able to stay primarily at home.
I have a communal laundry room in my building. What’s the best etiquette?
Some buildings have started sending out instructions on how to navigate using the machines during this time. If your building doesn’t already have a system in place, Corthals recommended establishing a laundry schedule among residents so that no more than two people (or one person, depending on the size of the room) are using the machines at a time and can maintain a safe 6-foot distance between each other.
Try to establish a schedule with rotations that minimize possible contact where residents can drop off their laundry and leave.
If you go to a shared laundry space and see a resident who is part of a population that is more at risk to develop severe side effects from the coronavirus, give that person priority and come back later. And if you are exhibiting any symptoms, somebody else from your household should be going to the laundry room.
Sort your dirty laundry at home before heading to the laundry room, and fold clean laundry at home to minimize your contact with the laundry room’s surfaces. You want to be in and out of the room as fast as you can, said Jack Caravanos, a clinical professor at the School of Global Public Health at New York University.
Finally, be aware of what you and your clothing touch, and don’t bring your hand near your face until you’ve washed your hands after you’re done.
If you want to be especially careful and have disinfectant to spare, you can wipe down the surfaces you’re likely to touch, including buttons, door handles, change, machine handles and doors. If you’re feeling neighborly, you can also wipe down these places after you’re finished to leave it clean for the next person.
Is it safe to go to a laundromat?
Yes. If you are healthy and have run out of clean clothing, it is OK to leave the house and do laundry. The same general rules apply: Wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing and don’t touch your face. You can bring disinfectant for the surfaces you will touch, although this isn’t necessary as long you wash your hands after your laundry is done.
Avoid going to the laundromat when it is full. It might be worth calling ahead to check how busy the place is or asking when their quieter hours are. Some laundromats may already have crowd-control policies in place.
Once you are inside, stay at least 6 feet away from others. Tasks such as sorting dirty laundry or folding dry clothing should be done at home. Touching several surfaces is inevitable while doing laundry, so avoid touching your face until you’ve used hand sanitizer or washed your hands. Avoid lingering inside and wait outside or in your car in between loads, if you can.
Practically speaking, doing one large load every couple of weeks in order to minimize your contact outside is ideal.
If I don’t have a washing machine, at what point should I be hand-washing clothing in the sink or bathtub?
If you’re part of a vulnerable population, having two or three outfits, along with underwear, that you can easily hand-wash in your bathtub and sink is a good idea. If you live alone and are experiencing any symptoms or have tested positive for the virus, this is a case where you may also want to hand-wash things at home.
Also, if it helps lower your stress level and you feel more comfortable with hand-washing at home, go for it.
My friend or loved one, who doesn’t live with me, wants to avoid the laundromat and use the machines in my building. What should I do?
Experts generally discouraged the practice of doing laundry for someone from outside your household, in line with social distancing rules. But the answer to this question largely depends on both you and your city’s general guidelines on social distancing and sheltering in place.
If you live in a building with a communal laundry room, it may be more ethical to tell the person no so as not to put other residents in your building at risk.
If you have laundry machines in your home, you should consider the vulnerability of yourself and your household members. If you agree to let someone else use your machines, double check that they aren’t experiencing any symptoms, maintain a safe social distance and ask the person to wear gloves and clean and disinfect the surfaces they’ve touched afterward, if possible.
Someone in my house is sick. How should I handle their clothes?
First, the sick person should already be quarantined to a specific room in your home. If possible, that person should stick to wearing easily washable clothing, like pajamas, and then put the dirty laundry in a disposable bag (a single garbage bag will do — experts said double bagging is likely excessive).
A healthy person in the household should take the bag while wearing disposable gloves, if available, and empty the bag directly in a machine to minimize any of the clothing’s contact with other surfaces as much as possible. Then wash and fully dry the items on the warmest appropriate setting. Whether you wear gloves or not, be sure to wash your hands immediately after dealing with any laundry.
According to the CDC, a sick person’s dirty laundry can be washed with other people’s items, although all three experts suggested isolating the contaminated clothing in a separate load.