How long can the coronavirus live on your skin?

can coronavirus live on skin, such as this up-close photo of a person's finger
Photo via Adrian Scottow/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

The coronavirus can live on skin and can survive on it for up to nine hours, according to a recent study from Japan. This is far longer than other viruses, including influenza, which remains viable on the skin for about two hours. 

Researchers in the U.S. previously estimated that COVID-19 could last up to four hours on copper surfaces, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to 72 hours on stainless steel or plastic. On wood, it can survive for up to 4 days, but it can only last between two and eight hours on aluminum. Glass, ceramics, and paper can all hold the virus for up to five days following exposure. But there is no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 regularly spreads through contact with food or water or that you have to worry too much about getting the virus via other surfaces.

The new study was completed by researchers at Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine in Japan. They surpassed the ethical concerns of putting patients in harm’s way by instead conducting research on a model created from samples of human skin obtained from autopsies. Using this model, researchers found that samples of the virus can survive for 9.04 hours, according to LiveScience. When mixed with mucus—which better mimics how particles are spread through coughing or sneezing—the virus lasted even longer. With the addition of mucus, it lasted nearly 11 hours. 

Mucus or not, the research shows that SARS-CoV-2—and influenza—are both inactivated within 15 seconds following the application of a hand sanitizer composed of 80% ethanol.

This reinforces recommendations we’ve been hearing since the start of the pandemic. Thorough and consistent hand washing and sanitizer use is the most effective method—barring mask-wearing—of keeping the virus at bay. Killing off the coronavirus living on your skin is essential—and not too difficult. (Still, you should be aware of a rare condition called “COVID toes,” and some coronavirus patients do get skin rashes, hives, and skin lesions, especially if they’re what’s considered a long-hauler.)

“It’s an important public health message to remind people that even though the virus can last basically a full workday in a lab setting, you can quickly get rid of it if you just wash your hands,” Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist from Winnipeg, said, via Canadian Press. “It’s not about panicking and having a full-body shower every time you get home. It’s about remembering that if the virus is on your hand and you wipe your nose or put your fingers in your mouth, that’s where the opportunity is to get infected.”

Researchers, in the course of the study, did not examine the “quantity of virus particles” needed to infect someone with just a touch. Future research may be needed to further examine this factor. 

The CDC lists a set of recommendations for how to best clean and disinfect common household surfaces. It also links to a list of EPA-recommended disinfectants, which have proven effective in eliminating the virus on surfaces. 

Sources: LiveScience, WebMD, CDC, Oxford Academic

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