You’re allowed to go outside to get some exercise and fresh air, as well as for essential trips such as grocery shopping.
But what should you do when you get back inside? Strip everything and wash it? Bleach it? Light it all on fire and call it a loss?
Don’t panic. We’re here to help. And please don’t light your clothes on fire.
First, experts said, it’s important to keep this in perspective: The real risk of infection comes from person-to-person contact and respiratory droplets. There is some theoretical risk that you could be infected through clothing, but it’s small and can be minimized even further.
That’s why there’s been no recommendation that the general public wash clothes after being outside, said John Zurlo, division director of infectious diseases at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.
“We haven’t recommended anything like that,” he said. More important than focusing on clothing, he said, is to wash your hands when you come inside and not touch your face with dirty hands.
The coronavirus can survive on some surfaces, including up to 24 hours on cardboard and three days on plastic and stainless steel. But levels of the virus drop quickly, and being detectable is not the same thing as being infectious.
And the virus tends to live for a shorter time on porous surfaces such as clothing, said Megan Culler Freeman, a senior pediatric infectious diseases fellow at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh whose Ph.D. work focused on coronaviruses.
If you want to really reduce the risk, it comes down to thinking about what your clothing has been exposed to, she said.
“If you went to a store and leaned against surfaces, it is more likely that the clothing could be contaminated," she said, “and I would recommend putting those clothes in the wash and changing into something clean for home.”
But just generally being outdoors, you're probably safe, Freeman said.
“If you went for a run and didn’t interact with anyone else,” she said, “your clothes are unlikely to be contaminated with virus (though they may be smelly, so you might still wash them.)”
Suzanne Willard, associate dean of global health at Rutgers University’s School of Nursing, agreed.
You’re OK if you’ve gone for a run or walk and not been around anyone else, she said. “It’s the close contact things,” she said, where you have to consider what to do with your clothes.
As long as the risk is low — you’re not a health-care worker, your clothes haven’t been rubbing against outside surfaces or touching other people — “you don’t need to sterilize everything as soon as you walk in the door,” said Jayatri Das, chief bioscientist at the Franklin Institute.
You can change clothes after coming inside if you want, but there’s no need to wash them immediately, said Aline M. Holmes, a clinical professor at the Rutgers University School of Nursing.
Holmes doesn’t change clothes when she comes inside, she said, because she doesn’t need to.
“I go outside once or twice a week to the grocery store and I maintain six feet [of distance from other people],” she said. “I don’t come in and strip and wash them.”
Keep in mind that the virus likely will not survive for very long on clothes.
But if you’re feeling extra cautious, when it’s time to do laundry, wash clothes with hot water and soap, which also helps destroy the virus. Throwing those clothes in the dryer, where temperatures really get high, will help get rid of any remaining virus, Das said.
Afterward, you can disinfect the laundry bin or bag if you want.
But what you definitely should do, the experts said, is the same thing you should be doing often anyway. You knew it was coming: Wash your hands. With soap. For 20 seconds.