How to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 While Doing Laundry

Some simple steps to take, especially if you have someone at home who is sick or at high risk

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It’s rare that doing laundry feels life a lifesaving mission, but in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, washing your clothes properly could be vital to your family’s health.

Laundering clothes and linens safely is particularly important if you’re living with someone who has a suspected or confirmed case of the new coronavirus, someone with a compromised immune system, or someone who works in a hospital or another place where there may be exposure to the virus.

To make sure you’re cleaning clothes, towels, and sheets effectively, see these tips from experts.

Keep Contaminated Laundry Separate

While experts don’t know exactly how long the new coronavirus (officially called SARS-CoV-2) remains infectious on clothes and other fabrics, early research shows that the virus can survive on cardboard for no longer than 24 hours and on metal and plastic for up to 72 hours, says Jaimie Meyer, M.D., an infectious-disease specialist and assistant professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. So it’s possible that the virus may remain infectious on clothes for hours to days, though there is no data available on that yet.

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If you’re caring for someone in the house who is sick or you’re cleaning the clothes of a family member who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, consider those clothes contaminated and keep them in a separate laundry bin until it’s time to do the wash.

Also, if you can, place a washable or disposable liner in that laundry bin so that you can either launder it or throw it away after you remove the dirty clothes.

“As a healthcare worker myself, I change clothes immediately after coming home and sequester them with other exposed clothes,” says Koushik Kasanagottu, M.D., an internal medicine resident at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore.

Handle Soiled Items With Care

When you handle the dirty laundry of someone who is sick or has been exposed to the coronavirus—especially if there are bodily fluids on the items—wear disposable gloves if possible, and throw them away after each use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You could also wear reusable gloves, but be sure to wear them only when cleaning and disinfecting items or surfaces that have been exposed to the virus. Then keep the gloves in a separate bag. After taking off the gloves, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds in soap and water.

If you don’t have gloves, do the laundry with your bare hands, and wash your hands thoroughly after you’re done touching contaminated items. Also be extra mindful to keep your hands away from your face throughout this process.

While transferring items from the bin to the washer, don’t shake the laundry, which could disperse the virus through the air, according to the CDC.

But “it is okay to wash the laundry of someone who is ill along with the laundry of other members of the household,” Meyer says. As long as you take measures to safely handle contaminated items, there’s no need to do a separate load for those linens and clothes, according to the CDC.

See CR’s ratings and buying guides for washing machines, clothes dryers, and laundry detergents.

Use Your Detergent of Choice

Wash contaminated clothes and linens as you normally would, but “launder items using the warmest appropriate water setting for the items and dry items completely,” the CDC says.

While the CDC does not specifically recommend using a detergent plus bleach, the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene states that bleach may help inactivate viral microbes in the wash. So if you’re washing whites and light colors, you could add bleach to the load. Or you could use a detergent that contains a color-safe bleach if it’s appropriate for the fabric.

Also, while more research is needed to determine what temperature may inactivate the virus, Don Schaffner, Ph.D., a microbiologist and distinguished professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., explains that the entire washing process should rid fabrics of the coronavirus. It’s the combination of detergent, warm water, and physical agitation in the rinse and spin cycles that removes, inactivates, and washes away viral microbes.

Once the washing is done, using a dryer may be better than hanging the clothes to dry because the heat may also help inactivate any viral microbes. In addition, dry fabrics are less likely to transfer germs than wet ones.

Sanitize High-Touch Surfaces

After you put the dirty laundry in the washer, disinfect surfaces in the laundry area that may have become contaminated by the virus, such as the knobs and the door pull on the washing machine.

Also clean the laundry bin with bleach or other household disinfectant after you’ve removed the dirty clothes.

Practice Social Distancing in Laundromats

If you’re using a shared laundry facility, whether that’s in an apartment building or a laundromat, it’s also important to disinfect handles and other surfaces before you touch the machines so that you don’t pick up any viral microbes that may be present.

But the most crucial thing to keep in mind when in a shared laundry space is to stay at least 6 feet away from anyone else who is there.

“If you go to a public laundromat, the riskiest thing there is other people,” Schaffner says. “The virus is much less transferable and infectious on a surface than it is if someone with coronavirus coughs near you. So practice social distancing, and don’t linger in the laundromat while your clothes are being washed.”

Then use hand sanitizer or wash your hands after you leave.

—Additional reporting by Kimberly Janeway

Rachel Rabkin Peachman

I'm a science journalist turned investigative reporter on CR's Special Projects team. My job is to shed light on issues affecting people's health, safety, and well-being. I've dug deep into problems such as dangerous doctors, deadly children's products, and contamination in our food supply. Got a tip? Follow me on Twitter (@RachelPeachman).