Pandemic Laundry Doesn’t Have to Stress You Out—Here Are 5 Ways to Make it Easier

updated Jun 8, 2020
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In the midst of a world pandemic, some chores have become high-stakes. Suddenly, wiping down your counters, scrubbing your floors, and washing your dirty laundry aren’t just pesky items on your to-do list, but critical ways of protecting yourself and your loved ones from getting sick.

Still, even if you logically know those chores are helping you stay healthy, getting them done can feel overwhelming. Because now, housework isn’t just physical labor. It takes emotional labor, too.

Take laundry, for example: Pre-pandemic, you might have had a familiar routine of keeping your clothes in a hamper and washing them once a week. Now, there are all kinds of new high-stakes rules to break down, making a once doable chore feel exhausting. According to laundry expert Patric Richardson, who owns the Minneapolis-based boutique Mona Williams, laundry doesn’t have to feel this way—even during a pandemic. The key is to follow common sense guidelines and, when possible, keep laundry low-stakes. 

Here’s what you need to know about taking control of washing your clothes in a quarantine.

1. Don’t worry about separating dirty clothes by type

As a general rule, dirty clothes are dirty clothes. Unless you plan to re-wear something (that hasn’t been exposed to outside germs), you can keep all your soiled items in one place. That includes cleaning cloths―Richardson says there’s no reason to keep those in a separate space, as long as they don’t come into contact with garments you plan to wear again.

There is one thing to think about, if you haven’t already: If you’re someone who puts clothes on a chair or the floor after changing, now is a good time to be more intentional. Keep soiled clothes separate from clothes you want to re-wear.

“If you have a pair of sweats you love and wear every day at home, then you need to keep your outside clothes separate,” Richardson says. “If you have a hamper, go home and throw your outside clothes in it. Anything that goes into the hamper, don’t take back out until you wash it.”

2. Don’t do laundry more than you actually need to 

One of the most important things to reduce your laundry-related mental load: If you have enough clothes to get you by, then you don’t actually need to wash your garments any more often than you would pre-pandemic. Richardson generally recommends a once-a-week laundry routine, which you can still stick to now. (Just keep in mind you may have more loads to do when you go to launder, since you could be changing clothes more frequently than before, if you need to be out a lot.)

If you don’t have enough clothes to last a whole week, you can amp up the laundry routine to twice or three times a week. The important thing is to keep a routine to make laundry predictable. When you know it’s coming, the chore will feel less overwhelming, which is especially important when stress levels are higher in general.

“While so many things are out of control, when you do your laundry is something you can control,” he says. “It also provides a sense of accomplishment—you do the laundry, and it’s clean. You win.”

3. Don’t wash right away, unless you were around someone sick

Rather than washing every time you get home, you can keep potentially contaminated clothing items in one, designated space, like a laundry basket or hamper. Richardson recommends keeping dirty clothes in a closet if possible, or covering your lid-less hamper with a towel to prevent droplets from aerosolizing in the air. If you have a laundry room, you can also store your dirty clothes there until you’re ready to wash. 

If you know you were around a sick person, Richardson recommends laundering or hand washing the garments right away whenever possible.

4. If you can’t wash something, just wait 24 hours to re-wear it

When you come home from a public place, it’s safe to assume at least the outer layers of your clothes are soiled. But you don’t necessarily need to wash them before they’re safe to re-wear. If you can’t or don’t want to wash something (like a work uniform), take advantage of the best sanitizer of all: Time. Just keep your designated re-wear garment in a separate place by itself for 24 hours or more; once you mix in other soiled garments, like in a hamper, the clothes you’re quarantining will be re-contaminated.

It’s not totally clear how long  SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can remain viable on fabric. According to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the virus is viable on cardboard for around 24 hours. Richardson says it’s safe to assume the time frame is similar for most textiles, which are also porous.

“When retail stores reopen, many will quarantine clothes that have been tried on for 24 hours to make sure they’re safe to wear again,” he says. “You can do the same thing by keeping your soiled clothes in a designated, isolated place until the germs are no longer viable.”

5. Don’t wash clothes any differently than you did before

The only difference between pre-pandemic and pandemic laundry is hand hygiene. Unless you’re washing clothes for someone sick (in which case you should wear gloves, avoid putting garments close to your face, and thoroughly wash your hands afterward), it’s pretty much business as usual once you’re in the laundry room.

Don’t worry about separating clothes by how dirty they are when you wash them. Soap or detergent are enough to take care of any lingering germs. “Just put your laundry in and then wash your hands afterward,” says Richardson. “Once you put your clothes in the laundry, they’re safe, and you’re 100 percent in control of that.”