3 New Expert-Approved Rules for Wearing and Washing Your “Outside Clothes”

updated Jun 16, 2020
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Life during a pandemic isn’t easy to navigate. While some public health guidelines are clear and essential, others aren’t so black and white. For example, if you go out in public, it’s important to follow CDC guidelines by wearing a cloth face covering and washing your hands thoroughly after you arrive home. And for anyone caring for someone sick, the CDC encourages carefully washing their laundry—ideally with a mask and gloves on—to prevent the cross-spread of pathogens. 

But what about hygiene practices that fall in a “gray” area, like changing your clothes when you get home from essential errands or a socially-distanced hang? We spoke to experts to find out so you can make the best, safest decision. 

Do you need to change your clothes when you get home? Sometimes.

According to Melissa Hawkins, Ph.D, an epidemiologist at American University, there’s no hard-and-fast answer. Whether you strip down and run to the laundry room after arriving home largely depends on where you were, how long you were there, and what type of contact you had. 

Yes, recent studies show SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, can remain viable on surfaces anywhere from hours to days—and that includes fabric. But the duration varies drastically by the type of surface, and Hawkins says even so, your clothes aren’t automatically “soiled” just because you walked by someone. 

“If my hands touch someone’s clothes or someone coughed on me while sitting near me, that’s a lot different than passing someone at a six-foot distance,” she says. “The important thing here is both distance and duration of exposure—how long you were near someone who could potentially transmit the virus to you.”

So whether or not you strip down when you get home, and how many layers you take off, depends on common sense and your assessment of the risk and your personal level of comfort. One thing Hawkins emphasizes across the board: “If you do take your clothes off or touch anything that may have been exposed, don’t touch your face, and always wash your hands after.”

Credit: Kim Lucian

Do you need to shed your clothes immediately after walking through the door? No.

You don’t need to strip down every layer of clothing unless you were around someone sick, Hawkins says. “Unless someone was actively ill in your presence or you have a known exposure, you don’t need to shed your clothes immediately at the door.”

Patric Richardson, a laundry expert and founder of the Minneapolis-based boutique Mona Williams, says he would err on the side of caution and change his clothes if he went to a clinic or pharmacy, where it’s more likely he’d be in contact with sick people. “I usually wash my clothes once a week, but this is one instance where I’d break my own rule and wash everything I was wearing, just to feel like I have a sense of control,” he says. 

If you can’t wash your clothes immediately, don’t stress: Richardson says you can “quarantine” potentially soiled items by keeping them separate from other garments and not wearing them for at least 24 hours. You can also store them in a hamper with a lid on it, or in your washer until it’s time to do laundry.

One thing you may want to consider shedding immediately, regardless of where you went, is your footwear. One recent study shows the novel coronavirus can remain viable on shoes, so make a habit of ditching them at the door first thing whenever possible.

How many layers really need to be washed? Probably just your outerwear.

Before you strip down and stand in the kitchen naked while putting away groceries, think through how likely it was you were exposed to the virus. If you sat in the urgent care waiting room, strip down and wash everything. If you went to the grocery store where everyone was wearing a mask, Richardson recommends considering the outer layer soiled. 

Usually, he says, no matter where he went, he washes, quarantines, or steams (since heat can kill germs) outer layers like pants, shirts (if he’s not wearing a jacket) or hoodies and coats. Items like underwear, undershirts, and socks probably don’t need to be taken off if they weren’t directly exposed to droplets.

But some outer items stay on your body, which means they need degerming. If you wear glasses, they technically shield your eyes from droplets like a mask does your nose and mouth, so you may want to make a practice of sanitizing the lenses and frames when you get home. Same goes for your phone: Since you’re likely putting it toward your face and touching it frequently, disinfect as soon as you get home.

For other personal items, like sunglasses, keys, your wallet, or your purse, keep them in a designated place to quarantine, like a bowl in your breezeway, or sanitize them. “I’d spritz my purse with Lysol when I get home if it made me more comfortable, since the virus can survive longer on non-porous surfaces like leather,” Hawkins says.

As the pandemic situation changes, hygiene guidelines might shift along with it. The important thing, Hawkins emphasizes, is to take a cautious, balanced approach.  “Now that many communities are slowly starting to re-open, we have to think about how we can safely and comfortably engage,” she says. “I recommend balancing guidelines from reliable sources like the CDC with your own, personal level of comfort.”