Laundry in a Time of COVID-19

Baby blue plastic laundry basket filled with dirty clothes

Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Amid all the confusion, here's some solid advice on how to keep your clothes clean and free from contamination.

By now, most of us understand the importance of proper handwashing and regular housecleaning to reduce the possibility of contamination by the coronavirus – but what about laundry? How are we supposed to wash our clothes to stop the spread of the virus, especially when nearly 15 percent of the American population uses shared laundry facilities or laundromats?

This article pulls together the best advice that's currently available on the Internet, but it's important to keep a few things in mind. The information is constantly changing because so little is understood about this virus, and nothing is guaranteed. All we can do is our best. Unfortunately, much of the advice offered by experts runs counter to TreeHugger's usual low-impact approach, i.e. using a cold water wash cycle and always hang-drying, but you'll see there are a few green hacks.

As of right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people can stick more or less to their usual laundry routine: "Launder items (if possible) according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Use the warmest appropriate water setting and dry items completely." But for those people using common laundry facilities or venturing out into the world for essential errands, there are always more questions and concerns.

If you use shared laundry facilities or a laundromat:

Know where the virus is most likely to live – on hard surfaces, knobs and handles, stainless countertops and folding areas, and inside the machines. Wipe everything down with disinfectant before using and wear gloves.

When using a communal washer and dryer, wash at the warmest water setting that your clothes can handle and dry for at least 45 minutes. In an interview with Fashionista, physician Carol DerSarkissian says it's unknown how long the virus can survive on soft surfaces, such as fabric, but increasing laundry temperatures will help deal with this.

Go at quiet times. Avoid the laundry room or laundromat when it's busy in order to minimize contact with other people. If you really want to avoid common laundry areas, wash clothes in your bathtub, sink, or in a bucket in the shower at the hottest temperature you can handle and hang to dry. (More on that below.)

Call your laundromat or apartment building manager ahead of time to find out what precautions they're taking to sanitize the space. If their approach is not satisfactory, go to a different laundromat, or request better procedures.

For all loads of laundry, including those at home:

You can continue to use natural detergents, since no detergents, synthetic chemical-laden or otherwise, seem to affect the virus. Bleach is effective, however, so use a bit in your loads if it's safe and if you're concerned.

If you're not dealing with an infection, you can still hang clothes to dry, just avoid shaking them out indoors, which could spread the virus. DerSarkissian recommends hanging in direct sunlight until fully dry. I like to wait for sunny days to do laundry; it's also a great mood-booster to spend some time on the back deck, hanging out clothes. You can set up a clothing rack on a balcony or in a sunny window.

Remember to wash your laundry bags and disinfect the inside of your laundry basket. (Also, use separate laundry bags if you live with an infected individual.) You're not alone if this hadn't occurred to you! In the Globe and Mail, Ian Brown wrote a letter to his socially-distanced wife and said:

"I just read on the internet that we should disinfect the inside of the laundry hamper. This is a deadly virus, after all. But have we, two working people, you a feminist and me a traditionally lazy-assed male where housework is concerned – have we ever even considered the inside of the laundry hamper? Of course not. It needs to be disinfected."

Remember to wash other items. Some pieces of clothing fail to see the inside of a washing machine on a regular basis, such as hats, mitts, gloves, scarves, kids' splash pants, winter and spring jackets. Give these a wash, especially if you work in the healthcare sector or have made an outing to the grocery store or pharmacy. Fashionista reports, "Antiseptic wipes are a good way to clean leather and synthetic leather gloves. Launder gloves that are knitted."

Additional clothing strategies:

To take extra precautions, you could have a set of 'outside' clothes that you use only when you leave the house. Change out of these as soon as you get home and place in a closed bag. DerSarkissian says it's currently expected that the virus would die on its own if left in a bag. Leave shoes outside the front door.