Cleaning and disinfecting are on people’s minds these days. We’ve been told to disinfect hard surfaces like doorknobs and countertops, and to wash our hands frequently, but less information is available about how, and how often, to clean textiles like clothing, bedding and upholstered furniture to prevent the transmission of coronavirus.
“The coronavirus is mainly transmitted through droplets generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks. You can be infected by breathing in the virus if you are within 3 feet of a person who has covid-19, or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hands,” Christian Lindmeier, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, says.
While the novel coronavirus that causes covid-19 is very different from the flu virus, and experts are still learning what preventive measures are effective, we can extrapolate some lessons from what we know of the flu virus when it comes to washing fabric. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu viruses are killed by heat above 167 degrees F (75 C). Steam, which is produced at 212 F, is known to kill the flu virus and has long been an alternative to cleaning textiles with detergent and water.
Steam works to disinfect and clean in two ways. (Disinfecting involves killing bacteria, while cleaning is the removal of dirt.) The first is through heat, which serves to disinfect, and the second is through moisture, which performs the cleaning function. “What moisture does is it causes the fibers to sort of open up,” he says. Using a wool-blend work uniform as an example, he explains the effect of steam on the fibers: “That wool actually opens up with steam, it causes the fibers to kind of relax. Steam doesn’t really force [the dirt] out, it just allows it to fall out.”
If traditional laundering with detergent and water is an option, Richardson said that it is superior to steaming, because it’s easy to miss swaths of fabric when using a steamer, while washing by machine or by hand, when done correctly, cleans every square inch of fabric. You should just wash clothes using the hottest water the garment can tolerate; check the care tag for that information. As for drying, just put it on the highest heat setting as well. “If I had to put my money on it, I’d put my money on soap and water,” he says.
But when it comes to fabrics that cannot be washed, or items that are too bulky to wash by hand or in a machine, like a duvet or even a couch, steaming is an excellent alternative. Richardson offers a tip for those bulky items: “If you can throw it over anything so that you don’t have to work on it flat, it’s easier.” He suggests putting the item in need of steaming over the shower rod, a bannister or a handrail — “even if you have to drag the sofa into the middle of the floor and throw it over the sofa so you can work on it vertically,” he says.