Like many details related to COVID-19, the length of time that the virus lives on various surfaces is not clear-cut. One early study from the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) suggested slightly different amounts of time than more recent research published in The Lancet. The table below illustrates the values tested and reported by scientists for each of these esteemed journals. It’s important to note, though, that living on surfaces does NOT mean that it can be easily transferred to infect people. Contracting the virus from objects is extremely rare.
While COVID-19 can live up to several days to a week on a variety of surfaces, especially those that are smooth, like doorknobs and countertops, the likelihood that you will contract the virus from that surface is extremely slim. The virus cannot seep into your skin; you would need to transfer it through your nose, mouth, or eyes. That is why we emphasize disinfecting often, washing your hands frequently, and avoiding touching your face (which may be more easily remembered with a mask in place).
Of note, COVID-19 doesn’t like cardboard, paper (with the exception of money), or fabric as much as other surfaces because of the presence of microscopic holes. So, clothes, couches, pillows, sheets, mail, and the many boxes arriving lately are much less likely to carry COVID-19 than other surfaces. Unlike other forms of paper, however, Lancet found COVID-19 still living on money at Day 4, as indicated in the table above. Again, wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, especially after doing errands, emptying groceries, or handling money.
Given the mixed info about clothes and how much we still are learning about COVID-19, it seems like a good idea to be cautious. If you’ve been working in a hospital, long term care facility, meat packing plant, or prison, for example, it makes sense to wash your clothes right away; or, store them somewhere inaccessible for a couple of days and then put them through a machine wash cycle.
It is interesting to note, however, that often the soles of shoes are more impacted than clothes. Try wiping them down with disinfectant. Also, the total amount of virus (called inoculum) on any surface diminishes over time; so, the amount on a given surface on day 4 will be less than on day 1.