Is It Safe To Rent Clothes During The Coronavirus Pandemic?

Experts weigh in on the risk of using clothing rental services like Rent the Runway amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether you’re heading back to the office, attending a microwedding or want to look your best for a Zoom presentation, you might consider turning to a clothing and accessory rental service like Rent the Runway, Stitch Fix or Switch. In the age of coronavirus, though, wearing something a stranger in another part of the country donned days earlier might seem scary. After all, the rules of what we do and don’t need to disinfect feel like they’re constantly changing.

However, “it’s not been documented in a live situation that you can pick up COVID-19 from clothes,” Marilyn Roberts, a professor in University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, told HuffPost. “As long as they’re cleaned in between each person, I can’t see that there’s going to be a problem.”

Inside The Cleaning Process

Josh Petrie, an assistant professor in University of Michigan’s Department of Epidemiology, told HuffPost that “using hot water and laundry detergent would be the main things” rental companies should be doing to clean clothing between customers.

Rent the Runway says it heats clothes to temperatures between 248 and 302 degrees Fahrenheit during the cleaning process. The CDC says flu viruses are killed by heat above 167 F.
Andrew Kelly / reuters
Rent the Runway says it heats clothes to temperatures between 248 and 302 degrees Fahrenheit during the cleaning process. The CDC says flu viruses are killed by heat above 167 F.

Rent the Runway puts garments through a wet or dry cleaning process depending on the proper care for the item and then all pieces of clothing “go through an additional steaming process which heats items to between 248 degrees and 302 degrees [F], with the exception of faux fur, select outerwear, leather and faux leather garments, which still go through our standard cleaning processes,” a RTR representative told HuffPost. According to the Center for Disease Control, flu viruses are killed by heat above 167 F.

Clothing rental subscription service Gwynnie Bee, too, utilizes wet and dry cleaning, and a spokesperson for the brand told HuffPost that “once cleaned, all garments are processed through a high-heat steam tunnel which reaches a minimum of 240 degrees.” Clothing rental services Armoire and Nuuly do the same, with a steam process that heats to 250 degrees. Nuuly additionally washes its reusable garment bags and puts them through a 250-degree steam tunnel.

“Based on what we know with steam deactivating the virus, I think that’s a prudent practice,” University of Minnesota assistant professor of environmental health sciences Susan Arnold told HuffPost. “If heat is involved in the dry cleaning process, we know that has some efficacy in killing the virus.”

In response to COVID-19, Armoire implemented new shifts for its employees so that no more than 10 people are working in its 7,000 square-foot warehouse at a time. Employees wear gloves and masks, receive regular temperature checks, and after each shift, their work stations get sanitized. Nuuly moved to a staggered break schedule on top of requiring workers to wear masks.

According to Sindhu Kurian Aderson, an immediate care physician at Northwestern Medicine, having employees wear masks will make a major impact on reducing the chance of coronavirus ending up on garments. “Wearing masks will reduce the likelihood of transmission by over 90%,” she said. “If people are in masks, the risk is essentially not there.”

Even if a person handling the garment in a distribution facility is carrying the virus, it “is transmitted more from person to person as opposed to from things on people,” Aderson added. “It’s very difficult to transmit COVID through clothing or fabric.”

A garment hangs in the automated sortation section at Rent the Runway's "Dream Fulfillment Center" in Secaucus, NJ in September 2019.
Andrew Kelly / reuters
A garment hangs in the automated sortation section at Rent the Runway's "Dream Fulfillment Center" in Secaucus, NJ in September 2019.

Elapsed time also helps reduce the possibility of contracting COVID-19 via rented clothing. “Some studies were saying that for certain surfaces, COVID could survive for up to a few days,” Arnold said. “But if these clothes are being cleaned between clients, by the time it gets to the next client, that window should have closed.”

So even if a garment came into contact with coronavirus by a previous wearer or a distribution center employee, the cleaning process and the passage of time make it that “the virus should no longer be viable,” Arnold continued.

What about jewelry and accessories?

Accessories, however,are trickier to decontaminate,” Arnold said. “Shoes and bags are going to have lots of nooks and crannies you’re not going to reach. But if they can be wiped down with soap and water, we’ve seen the coronavirus is really vulnerable to that.”

Rent the Runway wipes down sunglasses, handbags and jewelry with alcohol wipes and additionally treats bags with disinfectant spray. But Texas-based Bagromance suspended its rentals indefinitely due to coronavirus concerns.

If you do rent a handbag, Roberts recommends putting “your personal items in a zip bag so that they’re not touching inside and you’re not touching inside. It’s probably overkill, but the inside of a purse is really hard to clean.”

A rep for jewelry rental company Switch told HuffPost they now ensure no two customers receive the same piece within less than a week of each other. Depending on the pieces’ composition, Switch uses an ultrasonic machine or steamers to clean pieces. Items are then sterilized with alcohol or other disinfectants before being individually bagged and stored. Ahead of being sent to the next customer, jewelry gets sterilized again, with earrings receiving special attention for sanitization around the posts.

Red Carpet Rocks also utilizes an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner and steam cleaning and wipes down all pieces by hand with an alcohol prep pad, according to a spokesperson for the designer jewelry rental service.

A rep for Adorn told HuffPost the fine jewelry rental company uses a new jewelry box and inserts for each shipment and that its process of ultrasonic cleaning, polishing and sterilizing takes “a couple of hours” because pieces never go into the ultrasonic together. Then they get stored in separate bags.

If customers want to be extra careful, Adorn recommends cleaning rented pieces with water and Dawn dish soap in a bowl and then air-drying them on a towel.

Aderson endorses washing jewelry with soap and warm water and wiping down bags with sanitation wipes to “help eliminate any of the virus there,” she said. “But it’s very unlikely COVID would be transmitted through those items.”

Petrie agrees. “Most transmission is through coming in contact with a sick person,” he said, “but if you want to wipe an item down with alcohol or a cleaning solution that’s not going to harm it, that would be fine if you want to be extra cautious.”

It’s likely that you’re at a greater risk of infecting the clothes than your rental service is.

Roberts calls the danger of renting “marginal, unless you’re in a high-risk group,” like someone who is immunocompromised or over 65.

The bigger risk comes down to where shoppers wear their rented garments and accessories. “My first question is, where are you going that you need these clothes?” Arnold asked. “Make sure it’s aggressively outside and you’re safely socially distancing. But in terms of wearing the clothing that comes from one of these rental companies, the risk is low.”

“I would say it’s safe to order from those services,” Petrie echoed. “It’s contacting people that’s the risky thing.”

Be sure to pair any look with the most important accessory: a mask.

If you’re going to be in the company of other people, mask-wearing should be part of your outfit,” Roberts said.

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