Staying clean is all the rage these days—and now that we’re all religiously washing our hands like our mothers always told us to, we should also be keeping our clothing spic and span.
Thankfully, unless you’re working in a contaminated environment, the risk of contracting COVID-19 from clothing is considered to be small. But as the US passes 764,000 confirmed cases of the disease, understanding how best to protect ourselves from this invisible threat is crucial—and staying clean is our first line of defense.
At a time when leaving the house feels fraught with danger, those without washing machines might be wondering how safe it is to head to a communal laundry room or the local laundromat for the weekly wash. Do we have to resort to cleaning our undies in the kitchen sink? And is that as effective as using a machine?
We turned to experts in the field of laundry to bring you everything you need to know about washing your clothes during a pandemic.
Stop, Strip, and Step
While most of us probably aren’t piling up the laundry while self-isolating (after all sweat pants are perfectly good for three or four days), when you do go out, it’s important to deal with that clothing properly.
Thomas A. Banton-Ortega, Product Design Director at The Laundry Alternative Inc., advises setting up a disinfectant zone in your home where you can change out of your outdoor clothes, so as not to potentially contaminate your home.
"When you arrive home, immediately rub hand sanitizer on your hands, empty your pockets, and take off all your clothes in the disinfection zone," he says. "To remove your pants, let them drop and ‘step’ on them to pull off. Immediately put all your clothing in a plastic bag, touching it as little as possible, tie the bag, and then spray and mop (or rub, if carpet) the disinfection zone."
Wash Warm, Dry Hot
The CDC has special guidelines for washing the clothing of people known to be sick with COVID-19—but for everyone else, the institute advises washing clothes in the warmest water you can and drying as thoroughly as possible to eliminate any pathogens.
The CDC also recommends limiting the handling of dirty clothes as much as possible, wearing disposable gloves when doing so (or washing your hands frequently during the process), and not shaking out the laundry, as this can spread germs around.
The easiest way to limit the amount of laundry you do is to have less to do in the first place. Buy some extra sheets and hand towels so you don’t have to wash as frequently, and designate "inside" clothes that you only wear at home and can re-wear for a number of days, thus limiting laundry day to small items like underwear and socks.
When you do need to wash, but don’t want to leave the house, you might consider investing in a portable, countertop laundry machine—or putting your kitchen sink or bathtub to good use.
Washing the old-fashioned way isn’t as daunting as it sounds. Banton-Ortega has the following tips: "Fill your bathtub, sink, or large container with water as hot as possible, respecting the maximum temperature the garment can resist," he says. "The water level should be enough to keep all the clothes submerged."
"Add a powdered detergent and soak the clothes for 5 minutes," he continues. "Proceed with normal washing procedures and then rinse the clothes properly in warm water until all the detergent and other additives are completely removed. Then do a final rinse using cold water."
The hardest part about washing at home is drying, and according to the CDC, drying your clothes on a hot cycle is the most effective way to kill germs.
Doing laundry at home without a dryer usually involves hanging your clothes in a shower or bathtub to drip dry—a retractable clothesline or drying rack can help maximize space. Once they’ve air dried, you can go over your clothes with a hot iron to fully dry them.
The Laundry Alternative sells a portable dryer that doesn’t need any hookups called the Ninja Spin Dryer. Think of it as a salad spinner for your clothes. It doesn’t apply heat, but it does wring out a lot of water.
Consider Alternative Clothing Cleaners
If the sink isn’t your thing, a countertop or portable clothes washer is a great alternative to the laundromat. These compact devices don’t require plumbing or a water line, so you can use them anywhere—from a Manhattan walk-up to an off-the-grid tiny home.
Manual countertop models are the least expensive, but they require some work on your part. The Laundry Pod is a snap to use—just pour water and a little detergent in and then crank the handle for clean clothes in minutes. For larger loads, the Wonder Wash is an all-around champ—holding 7-8 dress shirts, 10 T-shirts, and 2 pairs of jeans in a single load.
Portable electric washers will set you back a few hundred dollars but require less of an arm workout and give you some more options. Whirpool’s Compact Load Washer has a 1.6-cubic-foot capacity and can hook directly to your tap, giving you five wash cycles and five temperature settings in a device you can pop back in the closet when you’re done.
Another, more luxe option is an "Air Dresser." With models from Samsung and LG, this at-home dry-cleaning alternative is shaped like a wardrobe and cleans and freshens delicate clothing using a combination of steam and agitation.
These appliances don’t need plumbing, but they’re not what you’d call portable, being tall and pretty heavy—and they’re also expensive. However, if you want to circumnavigate the dry cleaners, this is an intriguing appliance category that you’d also get some use out of when life returns to normal.
Yes, You can go to the Laundromat
While venturing to the laundromat poses a bigger risk of exposure than doing the laundry at home, if you’re healthy it is an entirely reasonable and essential outing. (For those at higher risk, this may be the time to splash out on that laundry service you’ve been eyeing).
Laundromats are considered an essential business in all states that have instituted stay-at-home orders. This means by and large, you’ll find they’re open and ready for business.
"Laundromat operators are among the frontline responders to this crisis and should be very proud of the vital support they are providing to the community," says Brian R. Wallace, president of the Coin Laundry Association. But like all frontline workers, they’ve had to make adjustments to daily operations.
"Laundromat owners have stepped up cleaning and disinfecting with emphasis on hard surfaces, door handles, and machine controls," says Wallace. Laundromats are also metering the number of customers in the store at one time, asking customers to load washers and then spend the cycle time in their cars or outside, and requiring customers to fold their clothes at home.
"We’ve come to call this concept ‘wash, dry, go’ to describe the process of coming to the laundromat to wash clothes but spending the minimum time in the store in close proximity to customers/employees," says Wallace.
The same guidelines apply to laundering in your apartment building’s laundry room—and if your building manager hasn’t done so yet, ask him or her to set up a similar "wash, dry, go" policy.
If you do have access to a washing machine, Banton-Ortega recommends using the longest cycle and the highest temperature the clothes can resist (follow the use and care labels), adding a capful of Lysol laundry sanitizer to your load, and adding an extra 10 minutes of drying time after your clothes are fully dried at the highest temperature your clothes will allow.
This article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice.
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