In Norway, as in other countries, healthcare workers wear face masks when on duty. In addition, nurses, doctors and others who are in contact with potential carriers of coronavirus wear protective clothing while interacting with patients and colleagues. This amounts to an acknowledgment of the fact that the virus can be transmitted via clothing as well as hard surfaces. There are still many things we do not know about how coronavirus spreads, but we do know that the virus cannot survive for very long on porous surfaces like clothes and that it can be neutralised using warm water and soap.
How can we effectively sanitise our clothes during the coronavirus outbreak? The Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) has been providing practical advice to the Norwegian public since the start of the outbreak.
The recommendations outlined below are aimed at people who want to prevent the clothes they wear from becoming conduits for infection.
Learning from the experts: healthcare professionals
“A key principle in preventing infection is to keep clean and dirty clothes separate," Ingun Grimstad Klepp tells us. Klepp, a researcher at the OsloMet-affiliated research centre Consumption Research Norway (SIFO), is the author of the book Lettstelt, rene klær med lite arbeid og miljøbelastning (Clean Clothes With Little Work or Environmental Impact).
One key principle for preventing infection is to keep clean and dirty clothes separate– Ingun Grimstad Klepp
Hospitals and other healthcare institutions maintain strict hygienic standards, and dirty laundry is transported via a different route than clean laundry. Klepp insists that all of us can do more to help keep clothes that could be contaminated separate from those that are not.
"It is just not possible to follow the same rules for washing our clothes at home as hospitals do, Klepp admits, "but there are a number of things we can do to minimise the risk of infection in our own homes."
Laundry in the time of corona
If one person in a household is ill, remember to keep dirty clothes belonging to the sick person separate from both clean and dirty clothes belonging to other members of the household. The sick person’s dirty clothes should ideally be placed straight in the washing machine. Always wash your hands after handling dirty clothes. If you have any cuts or open sores on your hands, keep them protected with a bandage.
"Remember that dirty clothes are precisely that: dirty,” says Klepp. “You should always wash your hands thoroughly after doing laundry."
“Decades ago, housewives were advised to wear an apron to protect the clothes they were wearing when doing laundry," the researcher points out. “Be mindful of everything that has been in contact with dirty clothes-the clothes you have on, your hands, the floor, the countertop. In this way, you will minimise the risk of spreading the virus inside your home.”
Keep clothes separate
The Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) recommends putting dirty clothes worn by a person infected with coronavirus straight into the machine. While this may not always be feasible, Klepp advises that people think carefully about where they keep this dirty laundry. Above all, clothes and other laundry belonging to a sick person should never be mixed with those belonging to other members of the household.
"Mixing clothes and fabrics belonging to a sick person with those belonging to a healthy person and washing them at temperatures below 60 degrees Celsius is not a good idea,” Klepp warns.
Turn up the temperature
Doing laundry at 60 degrees or higher leads to cleaner clothes. But adding an extra rinse cycle helps too. Now is the time to use your dyer if you have one. Finally, ironing your clothes, particularly with warm steam, provides a further benefit.
Adding too much detergent does not make the clothes cleaner—rather, it can have the opposite effect.
"One problem people may face is that not all of our clothes are designed to withstand temperatures as high as 60 degrees. In cases where one household member is sick, your best bet is either to wear clothes that can withstand high temperatures or get used to putting your clothes in quarantine each time you wear them," the researcher explains.
Clothes can be placed in quarantine too
Coronavirus can enter our home via our hands, our things and our clothes. To keep the virus at bay, we make a point of immediately washing our hands and hard surfaces clean like our mobile phone each time we return home. Since we can’t always immediately wash our clothes and our shoes each time we enter the house, placing them in quarantine instead can be an effective alternative. Coronavirus is unable to survive for long on its own, so make a point of removing your clothes, shoes, purse or backpack when you enter the house. Place these items in quarantine for 24 hours.
For once, it is probably a good thing that most of us have a lot of clothes– Ingun Grimstad Klepp
"If you have clothes that you suspect may have come into contact with the virus, my advice is to either put them straight into the washing machine, or place them in quarantine," the OsloMet researcher advises readers.
What should you do with clothes you've placed in quarantine? The most important thing is to keep them separate from your other clothes, clean or dirty. You can hang them up outside or in a spare room in your home. Since the virus can only survive for a limited amount of time, we don’t necessarily have to wash the clothes, but it’s important to wait a full 24 hours before wearing them again.
"Going straight home from riding the subway or the bus and taking a seat on the couch might not be the best idea right now,” Klepp cautions. “For once, it is probably a good thing that most of us have a lot of clothes."
Do you need to disinfect?
The latest research into coronavirus indicates that the virus is vulnerable to soap and hot water. In other words, you do not need to disinfect your clothes in order to remove traces of the virus from them. If, however, you want to disinfect items of clothing, washing them at 95 degrees is the closest you will get to a complete disinfection using a regular washing machine.
Ten minutes just below the boiling point is an effective way of disinfecting most things– Ingun Grimstad Klepp
Clothes made of wool cannot be washed at this high a temperature in a washing machine. If you want to disinfect clothing items made of wool, you should boil them in water instead.
"Soaking articles of clothing made of wool at just below the boiling point is an effective way of disinfecting. Use a pan and plenty of water and refrain from stirring. Imagine that you are boiling cod," Klepp advises.
For further reference
Ingun Grimstad Klepp and Tone Skårdal Tobiasson: Lettstelt, rene klær med lite arbeid og miljøbelastning (solumbokvennen.no). Oslo: Solum Bokvennen (2019)