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How Long Does the Coronavirus Live on Clothes—and Will Laundry Detergent Kill the Virus?

Health.com logo Health.com 3/24/2020 Claire Gillespie

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As the new coronavirus continues to spread, people are taking increasingly stringent precautions to ensure their home environment is free from the virus and their risk of infection is lower. We’ve all been taking part in scrupulous hand-washing for weeks, but what about washing other things, like our clothes? 

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the new coronavirus is typically transmitted through respiratory droplets (from an infected person sneezing or coughing) rather than through objects and materials that can transfer the virus if they become contaminated, CDC guidelines also note that the virus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials, including clothing. 

And while researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) in Montana have studied how long the new coronavirus can survive on cardboard, plastic, and steel, we don’t yet have that information about fabrics. 

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“I suspect that you can find viability of the virus for several hours to maybe a day on clothes,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland, tells Health. “It depends largely on the environmental conditions—temperature and humidity impact the growth of the virus.”

In general, Dr. Adalja says he doesn’t believe that clothes act as a “major vehicle spread” for the new coronavirus. 

But it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? So what can you do to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus when it comes to your clothing? 

How often should you wash your clothes? 

If nobody in your household has tested positive for the new coronavirus or is displaying any symptoms, you can clean your clothes as you usually do.

But if you’ve been out in public (to a shop, for instance) and people around you haven’t been adhering to the CDC’s social distancing guidelines (in other words, staying a minimum of 6 feet away from other people who don’t live in your household), it’s probably a good idea to machine wash the clothes you wore outside when you get home.  

The research from the NIAID reveals that some viruses can remain active after two or three days on plastic and stainless steel, and for 24 hours on cardboard and four hours on copper. Some zippers, buttons and other clothing hardware could be made of those materials, and therefore could bring the virus into your home. (Also, just to be clear, the guidelines here are about shirts, pants, skirts, etc., not necessarily outerwear like coats or shoes.)

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What about clothes worn by an ill person? 

If someone in your household has confirmed or suspected COVID-19, extra precautions must be taken when washing their clothes (as well as towels and bed linens they came into contact with). 

The CDC recommends wearing disposable gloves when handling dirty laundry from an ill person, and then discarding the gloves immediately after use. Clean your hands as soon as you take off the gloves. If you don’t wear gloves when you’re handling dirty laundry, make sure you wash your hands afterwards. Additionally, don’t shake dirty laundry; otherwise you might disperse the virus through the air. 

Items should be laundered per the manufacturer’s instructions and using the warmest possible appropriate setting. The CDC says it’s okay to wash dirty laundry from an ill person with other people’s garments, as washing clothes in a machine with detergent will kill the virus. But clothes hampers should be cleaned and disinfected after they’ve come into contact with the ill person’s items. 

The American Chemistry Council has compiled a list of products—including detergents—that can be used against emerging viral pathogens and COVID-19. (The Environmental Protection Agency has also put together a list of disinfectants that can be used to combat the virus.)

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Can you wash your clothes by hand?

No recommendations have been issued to suggest you shouldn’t hand-wash clothes at home, but you’ll get a much higher temperature if you use a machine, and a high temperature is part of the CDC's machine-washing recommendations.

Can you still go to the laundromat?

Laundromats remain open throughout the US and are considered an essential business, as they provide a necessary service to those who don’t have washing facilities in their own homes. 

However, it’s crucial to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 if you do go to a laundromat or use a shared laundry facility, such as the laundry room in an apartment building. Since we now know that the virus can remain active on surfaces for hours (if not days), take all the precautionary measures you can.

That means you should wear gloves, avoid touching your face, disinfect the surfaces of the machines you use in the laundromat, and wash your hands per CDC hygiene guidelines. If you have hand sanitizer, use it while at the laundromat, then wash your hands with soap and water when you get home. 

Remember, handwashing remains the most important step you can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19. So don’t get so obsessed with washing your clothes that you forget about your hands. 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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