I’m I At Risk of COVID-19 From Purchasing Second-hand Clothing?

Viral WhatsApp message advises against purchasing used clothing as they expose buyers to COVID-19.

I'm I At Risk of COVID-19 From Purchasing Second-hand Clothing?

While health experts have not ascertained the exact length of time COVID-19 stays active on fabrics, the WHO suggests a low probability of infection via package delivery. This rationale holds as studies show environmental changes and time affect the activeness of COVID-19; all of which are present in shipping clothing from another country. Furthermore, the assertion is not feasible as most countries with index cases have placed forms of travel and trade restriction.

Full Text

“It would be better now and for your safety and that of your children to avoid the use of newly acquired used clothing.” The quote mentioned above is an excerpt from a WhatsApp message we received last week. The text warns readers to be cautious when shopping for clothes; to get new and not used garments amid the pandemic. The author believes that clothes of index victims are being discarded and sold to Africans.

I'm I At Risk of COVID-19 From Purchasing Second-hand Clothing?
WhatsApp Message

It further advises readers to share the message as much as possible to get to other people. While this message seems almost logical, a sceptical mind wonders how reasonable its inferences are. Let’s move away from speculations and find out what the facts hold.


Firstly, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that a carrier of COVID-19 can infect another person through droplets from either sneezing or coughing; the other is at risk if said droplets touch eyes, nose or mouth.

From this, we understand that a person can not contract COVID-19 by merely touching infected surfaces and objects, but by putting the contaminated hand in his mouth, nose or eyes.

How long does the virus stay on surfaces and the objects they infect?

The next logical verification step is ascertaining the viruses “shelf life” on surfaces. For this, several pieces of research surmise different durations ranging from hours to days. Further, the Who suggests COVID-19 behaves similar to other coronaviruses in that factors like the type of surface, temperature and humidity play a role in the duration of its viability, post transmission.

A BBC publication spoke to this fact. The report referenced studies which show that SARS, MERS, and other coronaviruses without disinfection, can survive on metal, glass and plastic for as long as nine days. The article further added that in low temperatures, some of the viruses could remain for 28 days.

The column also refers to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine which compares the stability of SARS-COV-1 and SARS-COV-2 in five environmental conditions (aerosols, plastic, stainless steel, copper, and cardboard).

From the research work, BBC deduced that COVID-19 could survive in droplets for up to three hours after being coughed out into the air but goes extinct on copper after four hours. The virus can live longer on cardboard – up to 24 hours – and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces.

Unanswered questions and WHO’s Advice

As established in the preceding, research is still ongoing, and no research pieces are explaining how long the infection stays on clothing. 

Nonetheless, the WHO already issued advice for this sort of situation.

‘If you think a surface may be infected, clean it with simple disinfectant to kill the virus and protect yourself and others. Clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose.’

World Health Organisation

Inference and “common sense.”

Furthermore, the WHO suggests a low probability of infection via package delivery from an infected area. This assertion sits right within such parameters.  

‘The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low, and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.’

World Health Organisation

Going by this, the risk if any of COVID-19 transmission from these clothes is low; seeing as their transport would involve different weather conditions and environments, not to mention a length of time. 

More so, the fact that many affected countries have closed their borders rules out this possibility. Nigeria for one had imposed travel bans and suspended international flights from its Lagos and Abuja international airports. 

Last Resort

Let’s assume for a second that these infected clothes still make their way to a customer, what then? The consensus for second-hand clothing is to wash before use. This rationale holds for the average Nigerian. Following the WHO’s advice on disinfecting surfaces and regular handwashing as safety methods, one can easily infer washing clothes could eliminate the risk just as well. Still, this is all inference and logic. Going by facts, the probability of this is slim to none.

Regardless, best practices regarding personal hygiene have never been more imperative. Regular hand washing and clothes washing; leaving in a clean environment via disinfection; all go a long way to keeping you and your family safe during this pandemic.

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