We're growing accustomed to constant hand-washing and adjusting, as much as we can, to living apart from other humans. But in the time of Covid-19, should we be doing our laundry differently, too?
If someone in your home is sick, the answer, according to the CDC, is most certainly yes. But the answer is also yes if you share laundry facilities with others in your building or use a laundromat where you might come into contact with someone else's germs. According to Census data, just a little under 15% of American households lack a personal washer and dryer and the rates are even higher for low-income Americans.
That means a lot of people are washing clothes in shared laundry facilities right now, and that could be a risk: Covid-19 can live on hard surfaces like countertops and handles. While medical professionals assume the virus doesn't live long on clothing (somewhere between a few hours and a day is the current assumption), germs and viruses can survive in washing machines and spread from one load of clothes to another.
We reached out to Dr. Carol DerSarkissian, Emergency Physician and Clinical Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at NYU Langone Health, to ask her how we should be doing our laundry right now, particularly in these shared laundry spaces. Dr. DerSarkissian is also a medical reviewer for WebMD, including its content on laundry and killing germs. Read on for her advice.
First of all, is it nerve-wracking working in the ER right now?
We know how to protect ourselves, and it's just part of our jobs. We're wearing our gowns, our gloves, our N95 masks and our eye protection, so we're pretty covered up. And we wash our hands all the time anyway, so it's just a couple more layers of action than what we normally do. However, if a patient is critically ill, then special respiratory masks and gowns are used.
How cautious should we be right now?
People obviously need to be more conservative and careful, especially the elderly and the immunocompromised.
Many New Yorkers and Americans are using laundromats and shared laundry facilities. What precautions should we be taking in these spaces?
We have to look at two things: One, does the Covid-19 virus live on soft surfaces [like clothing] as long as it does on hard surfaces? It's not very clear right now. But in general, viruses last a couple of hours or maybe a day on soft surfaces, and then should be gone.
The other thing to consider is that we're practicing social distancing right now, so is the laundromat a safe place to go? It probably is if you take careful measures, meaning take your disinfectant wipes and wipe down all hard surfaces, and wear gloves when you're handling your laundry and touching any surfaces. Do your laundry on the warmest water you can and then let it dry in the dryer for at least 45 minutes to kill any kind of bacteria or viruses that might be there.
And if you're going to the laundromat or to the basement of your building [to wash clothes], go when there aren't a lot of people.
Can't viruses survive and live inside of laundry machines?
Yes, they can. If you want to be extra cautious, you can run the washing machine with bleach and then run it with your clothes and your detergent afterward. But if you run your clothes on high heat, which is 104 degrees, and then put it in the dryer, that's typically going to kill any organisms.
Should we be washing all of our clothes in scalding hot water and putting them in the dryer right now?
[No]. It should just be anything that came into contact with a surface that might be infected.
The CDC recommends using disposable gloves. But if we're wearing our regular leather or knit gloves instead, how can we clean them?
Antiseptic wipes are a good way to clean leather and synthetic leather gloves. Launder gloves that are knitted.
You also mentioned having a set of outside clothes that get washed regularly as another strategy to reduce risk of exposure. Tell us more.
Another way to go is to separate your inside clothes from your outside clothes. Take everything off when you get home, throw those clothes in a bag and change into a separate set of clothes. Leave your shoes outside, too. You can also just let the outside clothes sit [in a laundry bag] for a couple of days and don't touch them.
And the virus would die on its own after a few days if you just leave those clothes in the laundry bag?
That is what we expect currently.
Are there ways to disinfect clothes at home if you don't have your own washing machine and want to avoid the laundromat? In other words, is there a way to hand wash clothes and disinfect them?
I think the best scenario would be to wash clothes in your tub [editor's note: You can also use your sink for small loads] on the hottest water possible and then hang it dry in the sun if possible. UV rays will kill viruses and bacteria. That's not totally realistic for many people, but if you have a backyard or more open spaces, you can hang your laundry.
How long do we need to leave the clothes in the sun to kill germs?
I would recommend just leaving them there until they are fully dry.
As an emergency room physician, how do you protect yourself when you do your laundry?
I change into different clothes as soon as I get home and that's under normal circumstances. I also shower. I put the other clothes in a bag and let them be and then do all the laundry all at once.