By this point in the pandemic, we’ve figured out how to properly wash our hands, clean our homes and do laundry. But what about the “dry clean only” clothes in our closets that can’t be tossed into the washing machine? Would dry cleaning sanitize these items against COVID-19?
First, you need to know a bit about how the dry cleaning process works. The term “dry cleaning” is somewhat of a misnomer, as your clothes do get wet ― just not with water. Instead, a chemical solvent ― most commonly perchloroethylene ― is used to clean garments. (Green dry cleaners may use liquid carbon dioxide, a silicone-based solvent or a wet cleaning method instead.)
After that, the garments may be ironed, steamed or pressed. Turns out, it’s the higher temperatures used during these processes — not chemical cleaning solvents — that are capable of killing the virus, said Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases doctor and professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco.
“The high level of heat used in pressing and ironing during the dry cleaning process is pretty reliable,” he said. “The virus hates heat.”
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So is dry cleaning better at sanitizing than doing laundry at home?
Based on current research about fabric and COVID-19, there’s no indication that one method is better than the other, as long as your laundry reaches a high enough temperature. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu viruses are killed by heat above 167 degrees Fahrenheit. Studies of the coronavirus recommend 20 minutes above 140 degrees. Residential hot water can reach 130 degrees or higher.
“There isn’t evidence that dry cleaning is more or less effective at killing the coronavirus compared to washing in the washing machine,” said Melissa J. Perry, professor and chair of environmental and occupational health at The George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.
In other words, you don’t need to spring for professional dry cleaning on items you wouldn’t normally dry clean.
“Dry cleaning can be used for dry clean-only materials, whereas regular laundering is sufficient for washable garments and bedding,” Perry said.
When doing laundry at home, the CDC website says you can “launder items as appropriate in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.” But it recommends using the warmest water the fabric will allow and drying the items completely.
“A normal wash cycle, combined with the use of a deep-cleaning detergent, is sufficient for everyday cleaning in healthy households and also very effective for killing respiratory viruses that cause colds, flu and COVID-19,” microbiologist Kelly Reynolds, a professor and department chair at the University of Arizona, told Futurity.org, noting that higher water temperatures generally kill more germs.
If someone in your household is sick, however, you should take extra precautions when doing their laundry. Wear disposable gloves when handling their dirty clothes or linens, avoid shaking them out (you don’t want to disperse the virus) and wash your hands afterward. You can also machine-dry clothes on the high heat setting for added protection.
“When cleaning garments at home, one can also increase the efficiency of killing the virus by using bleach in the cleaning process when garments allow bleach,” said Diana Ceballos, assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
Do I need to dry clean clothes more often during COVID-19?
It depends, Chin-Hong said. “Certainly if the [garment] belongs to a family member who has recently been diagnosed with COVID, I would prioritize this to be dry cleaned as soon as you can,” he said. “Otherwise, it may be a good idea to dry clean these items if back from a vacation or travel. Or, if used in a potentially risky environment as an essential worker — like in health care — you could have them cleaned more frequently.”
But if you’re not sick and have no known exposure to the virus, then there’s no need to make extra trips to the dry cleaner.
“Dry cleaning as usual to maintain the cleanliness of the garment is sound practice and there is currently no evidence to suggest more dry cleaning than usual is necessary,” Perry said.
How worried should I be about the coronavirus on my clothes?
At this point, not very. The primary way the virus spreads is through close person-to-person contact and through the air. While transmission via surfaces is possible, it’s less common. And soft surfaces, like fabric, are thought to be less hospitable to the virus than hard ones.
“There is generally very low risk that the virus can live for a long time on clothing or bedding unless someone has recently coughed on it with a lot of respiratory secretions,” Chin-Hong said. “Viruses probably live for one to two days on fabric, compared to five to seven days on cold hard surfaces like doorknobs and faucets. [The virus] is not a great aficionado of soft and porous surfaces like most clothing.”
You’re more likely to contract COVID-19 by congregating with unmasked patrons inside the dry cleaning establishment than you would be from the clothes themselves, Chin-Hong said.
“Don’t forget the three Ws: wear your mask, wash your hands and watch your distance!” he said.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.