While we are still in the there-are-no-stupid-questions phase of dealing with the spread of COVID-19, there is one that haunts me. What should I wear outside? We spend enough time trying to answer the question during normal times here at GQ. Living through coronavirus, though, adds a massive wrinkle to how we think about what we’re wearing: can the clothes I’m wearing act as a conduit for infection? Does the virus interact differently with various materials? Should I change after leaving and returning home? I talked to health experts studying the disease to find out.
Is it possible for the virus to be transmitted through our clothes?
The short answer: probably not. “There is no data to suggest that you can be infected directly through your clothes,” says Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of pediatrics specializing in tropical medicine and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine.
The long answer is that there isn’t concrete research yet into how long the coronavirus can survive on our shirts, pants, sneakers, or ascots, but some educated guesses can be made. Tests have found that the virus can survive on “non-porous surfaces,” like paper or cardboard, for 24 hours, and on plastic and steel for up to three days. Clothes, though, are a “porous” surface. “The interstices in those fibers would make it even worse [for harboring the virus] than cardboard,” says Dr. Philip Tierno, a microbiologist at NYU Langone Health.
Dr. Weatherhead clarifies that while such a scenario is conceivable, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be infected because of what you’re wearing. “It is possible that if your clothes are contaminated with the virus and you touch the contaminated area of your clothes with your hand and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, you could become infected with the virus. However, this is unlikely to be a common mode of transmission unless you are in high-risk settings, like healthcare workers.”
Is the virus more likely to live on different materials?
Tierno says there is no data to say for certain whether the virus will live longer on your nylon Prada jacket or your cotton Off-White hoodie. However, “you can speculate,” says Dr. Tierno. “You could see [the virus] more readily in something absorbent like cotton, and same with viscose rayon.” Even so, cotton clothing is not a very effective way for the virus to spread.
If I do need to go out, should I change out of the clothes I was wearing and wash them when I get home?
The experts I spoke to all agreed on this topic: “This seems unnecessary,” says Dr. Anthony Fehr, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas’s Department of Molecular Biosciences who has studied coronaviruses since 2012. However, there are extenuating circumstances. Fehr clarifies that if you, for some reason, “were rubbing or touching lots of surfaces with your clothes,” you should change. Doctors and those working in healthcare are other obvious exceptions.
Plus, you should really have clothes just for lounging at home anyway.
Is it safer to touch surfaces with my sleeves rather than my hands?
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, I’ve been pulling my sleeve over my hands to touch elevator buttons, doorknobs, and accept packages. My seemingly airtight logic: if the virus is most easily transmitted by putting my hands on my face, this is a way to prevent my hands from ever coming into contact with the virus in the first place. My thinking…was wrong. “That’s not a smart thing to do,” says Dr. Tierno. “It’s better to use your hands and then wash them.” (In addition to your health, Dr. Tierno is also worried about your clothes: “You’re pulling your material apart,” he says, “you’re going to have sleeves that look bizarre.”)
In fact, if you’ve been using your sleeves as protective shields, then consider the above advice about not washing your clothes void. “If covering your hands with your sleeves when out in public, you need to avoid touching your face with your sleeve and avoid touching other surfaces with your sleeves,” Dr. Weatherhead says. “Additionally, upon returning home these clothing materials should be washed immediately.” The best guidelines to follow, of course, are also the ones we’ve been hearing and repeating for a few weeks now: the best way to deal with the coronavirus is to stay inside, socially distance when you can’t, and to thoroughly wash your hands as often as possible.