An Epidemiologist Answers the 6 Questions You Have About Doing Laundry in a Laundromat

published Apr 21, 2020
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The scenario: You’re on day six of wearing the same pair of jeans (OK, pajama pants) to avoid amassing piles of dirty clothes. Sure, they might be gross, but in your mind, some slightly grimy leggings are preferable to the germ-ridden alternative of venturing out to a laundromat or using the shared laundry room in an apartment building. 

Let us interrupt your perfectly reasonable anxiety with some good news. According to epidemiologist Melissa Hawkins, director of the Public Health Scholars Program in the Department of Health Studies at American University, you can drastically increase the cleanliness of your clothes without drastically increasing the likelihood you’ll transmit (or catch) an illness when you do laundry in public. 

The novel coronavirus can be transmitted directly through droplets in the air (like when someone sneezes or coughs) or when you touch something with droplets on it (like if those droplets land on a table, then you touch it). That’s why it’s so important to exercise caution when you bring your clothes—and yourself—to a public place. 

“There [are] no CDC guidelines on washing clothes in public yet, so it’s prudent to take some simple precautions in washing your clothes and encountering surfaces to reduce your risk of transmission,” Hawkins says.

What precautions, exactly, are important to take when you do laundry at the laundromat? And which anxieties can you wash away with the grime on your leggings? Hawkins shared the best practices with us below.

I’m kind of nervous. How should I act at the laundromat? 

First things first: It’s normal to be a little anxious about venturing out in public when you’re doing your part to flatten the curve. But Hawkins encourages laundry-doers to take a deep breath and practice common sense. 

When you go to do your laundry, behave just like you would if you’re at the grocery store or pharmacy: Follow CDC guidelines by practicing social distancing and wearing a snug-fitting mask that covers your nose and mouth. Avoid touching your face, and practice the same hand-washing routine you’ve grown accustomed to after arriving home from the supermarket.

Should I be careful where I put my dirty clothes?

Say you arrive at the laundromat with your clothes in a basket or mesh bag. Is it best to avoid setting that basket or bag on a shared surface, just in case the clothing has potentially harmful germs on it? Hawkins says that’s not an easy answer. “For clothing, it’s fair to assume the duration of the virus depends on the type of fabric and how porous it is,” she says. For example, she says polyester may retain germs longer than more breathable fabrics. 

But that doesn’t mean you should treat your polyester tops like they’re covered in germs—Hawkins says experts’ understanding of how long the virus remains viable on fabrics is speculative at this point. The recent study about how long the novel coronavirus can live on surfaces didn’t include fabrics or paper. 

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Should I sanitize the washer and other surfaces before running a load? 

Yes, Hawkins says: It makes sense to wipe down any knobs or handles you’ll be touching before you touch them, then again after you’re finished with your laundry. Wash your hands after you touch surfaces, especially before you touch something else (like your face).

Should I change how I wash my clothes in a public washer? 

No. Hawkins says the virus is killed by heat, so if you wash your clothes in hot water and dry them in a hot dryer, you likely don’t have anything to worry about. If you feel more comfortable wearing gloves and a mask while doing your laundry, then you should do that. But you don’t need to wash your clothes separately.

If you’re washing for someone who’s sick, there’s a bit of added risk for you and the other people. It might be better to hand wash at home, separate from other people’s things, while wearing a mask and gloves.

Does all of this apply to me if I’m considered at risk, or if I’m worried I’m sick?

Definitely not to the latter. If you suspect you’re sick, stay home. 

If you have a weakened immune system or your doctor has advised you to be more careful in public, it might be worth having someone else do your laundry, or hand washing at home. (We have a really good resource for that.)

Can I wash cloth masks at the laundromat? 

Good question. Again: Do what you’re comfortable with. While Hawkins says the high heat of the washer and dryer are probably enough to kill germs on masks, you may feel better washing them by hand at home instead, since germs can linger on the inside and outside of cloth masks.  

Moral of the story: Exercise common sense.

 “If taking these extra measures makes you feel more comfortable that you’re everything possible, then go for it,” Hawkins says. “If doing these extra things will add to your anxiety, then it’s not necessary to go beyond the CDC’s recommended practices.”