How Long Does Coronavirus Live On Skin, Hair And Nails?

Should you shower, shampoo and clean your nails as often as you wash your hands? Let's just say now's not the time to have long nails.

If you weren’t practicing perfect hand washing before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminds us now that COVID-19 is spreading that it’s one of the best ways to prevent getting sick.

But as often as we’re washing our hands, how often should we be washing, well, everything else? As you sit cross-legged on the couch while working from home, or twirl your hair without even realizing it, could you be carrying the virus on these other parts of your body?

Mobeen H. Rathore, chief of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville, Florida, told HuffPost researchers are only beginning to understand how long the coronavirus can live outside the human body, let alone on it.

“This virus is only a few months old and we don’t know as much about it as people sometimes make it sound,” Rathore said. “What we do know is it stays on hard surfaces, likes countertops, for two to three days. That’s an important element for understanding why we need to clean surfaces. There are some studies that say it may remain suspended in the air for up to three hours. This is new, preliminary data that may change any moment, so that’s something we need to be cognizant of.”

If the virus that causes COVID-19 can live on a hard, smooth surface for days, how long can it survive on our skin? The exact time is unknown, but as Rathore said, “It’s fair to say it stays long enough to spread from person to person,” hence all the reminders to wash your dirty mitts.

However, really cleaning around and underneath your fingernails is just as important. In fact, if your nail polish is chipping after social distancing from your salon, you should pay extra attention to scrubbing those areas.

Acrylic nails give germs another place to lurk.
marigo20 via Getty Images
Acrylic nails give germs another place to lurk.

“It’s not anything specific about gel or dip or acrylic or polish itself, but just the fact that it creates more little crevices for the virus to reside in, and then it’s harder to get that area truly clean when washing your hands,” said Elizabeth Ransom, chief physician executive at Baptist Health in Jacksonville. “Same thing with under the nails. You have to be pretty diligent cleaning these areas.”

The CDC actually recommends that hospitals don’t allow their employees to have long nails or artificial nails, because germs can live underneath them even after hand washing or applying sanitizer. So, while you may normally love longer nails, it’s more important than ever to make sure you’re cleaning them well.

“We know artificial nails are not good for infection prevention, and it’s better not to have them,” Rathore said.

Ransom said she wouldn’t be particularly concerned about hair or skin elsewhere on the body carrying the virus, since they would rarely come into contact with infected surfaces. As long as you’re washing your hands frequently, continue twirling your tresses as you please.

“It could be in your hair, but it would be hard to imagine unless someone actively coughed and got droplets in your hair,” Ransom said. “The most common mechanism for transmission is related to hands, because we’re using them all the time, constantly touching things, and we aren’t even aware of it. Then we touch our faces all the time without even thinking about it.”

So, if hand washing (and a good nail scrubbing) are the only major hygiene changes to make right now, which products are the best for rinsing away the virus? These doctors agree that it’s less about what you use and more about how you use it. That said, don’t rely on hand sanitizer, they advised.

“People wonder, ‘Is antibacterial soap better than regular soap? What about sanitizer gels?’ Really, just plain old soap and water is best,” Ransom said. “There have been a lot of studies that really don’t show any significant benefit to using antibacterial soaps. Hand sanitizer is good if you can’t wash your hands and you’re out and about, and you just touched that stair railing. But it doesn’t completely clean the skin and crevices, so if you have a bit of dirt or natural skin oils on your hands, it may be easier for the virus to remain there.”

By the way, that means soap and water “for at least 20 seconds, which is singing the happy birthday song twice, and the mechanical effect of that washes the viruses off your hands,” Rathore said. “For surfaces, there’s a whole EPA list of products available.”

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