Can You Get COVID-19 From Your Clothes?

Studies show whether your clothes put you at risk of COVID-19.

When the pandemic first started, there was very little understanding, and a great deal of concern about how COVID-19 was transmitted from person to person. To reduce our risk of contracting the virus, we sanitized and scrubbed everything from our hands to surfaces, food, and clothing.

It's now clear that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets (from an infected person talking, sneezing, or coughing) rather than through objects and materials that can transfer the virus if they become contaminated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that COVID-19 is spread in three main ways:

  • Breathing in air when close to an infected person who is exhaling small droplets and particles that contain the virus.
  • Having these small droplets and particles that contain virus land on the eyes, nose, or mouth, especially through splashes and sprays like a cough or sneeze.
  • Touching eyes, nose, or mouth with hands that have the virus on them.

Contaminated clothing (or other materials) is not considered a primary mode of transmission. However, it is important to learn all we can about how COVID-19 spreads to determine the most effective ways to protect ourselves.

Throughout the pandemic, scientists have looked at the ability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to survive on different materials, including clothing, for different periods of time. One study from November of 2020 published in the PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases journal found that while the viable virus was present on the skin for up to four days, on clothing, the virus survived for less than eight hours.

Another study from researchers in the UK and published in the journal mSphere in April 2022 looked specifically at the survival rate of the virus on different clothing materials most commonly used in health care worker clothing. Scientists at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) added droplets of a model coronavirus called HCoV-OC43 (which has a very similar structure and survival pattern to that of SARS-CoV-2) to polyester, polycotton, and 100% cotton.

The scientists showed that polyester posed the highest risk for transmission of the virus, with the infectious virus still present after three days that could transfer to other surfaces. On 100% cotton, the virus lasted for 24 hours, while on polycotton, the virus only survived for six hours.

In their paper, the DMU scientists cautioned that, particularly for health care workers who are in frequent contact with COVID-19 patients, it would be best to take extra precautions regarding laundering clothing.

Studies conducted in laboratories provide valuable information, however, thinking about conditions we experience in actual life is also important. Infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland, told Health that the growth and survival of the virus "depends largely on the environmental conditions—temperature and humidity."

However, in general, Dr. Adalja said he doesn't believe that clothes act as a "major vehicle spread" for SARS-CoV-2.

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?

Alex Sandoval

How Often Should You Wash Your Clothes?

If nobody in your household has tested positive for COVID-19 or is displaying any symptoms, you can clean your clothes as you usually do.

But suppose 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). In that case, it's probably a good idea to machine wash the clothes you wore outside when you get home.

Encouragingly, the De Montfort University Leicester study showed that washing clothes in hot water in a washing machine using detergent completely eliminated the virus. So if you have any concerns, a hot water wash with detergent will kill the virus.

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 says it is safe to wash dirty laundry from a person who is sick with other people's items. However, if handling dirty laundry from someone who has COVID-19, wear gloves and a mask, and wash your hands after handling dirty laundry. In addition, the agency recommends that you use the warmest appropriate water setting and dry items completely. Finish up by cleaning clothes hampers or laundry baskets according to guidance for surfaces.

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 help to combat the virus.)

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.

Remember that it's important to follow CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That means getting vaccinated and boosted, social distancing, wearing a mask in public, and washing your hands regularly, among other things.

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 CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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