Is It Safe to Buy Secondhand Fashion During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

If you usually frequent thrift and consignment stores, or are the queen of attending vintage kilo sales (sales where you buy clothing by weight) or clothes swap events, getting your secondhand fashion fix is probably one of the everyday things you’re starting to miss in this time of social distancing.

But given that COVID-19 is a novel virus, meaning we don’t yet have a detailed picture of how exactly it can spread, having concerns about clothing that has passed through other people’s hands is only natural.

Can the virus survive on the fabric? What about the package itself? And does purchasing put sellers or postal workers at risk? This article attempts to answer some of these frequently asked questions.

Can Covid-19 survive on, and be transmitted through, fabrics?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), preliminary studies into COVID-19 transmission have concluded that it “may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days.” A virus’s length of survival on a surface is linked both to how exposed the surface was (i.e. did a non-infected person touch it lightly with one finger after touching another surface where the virus was present, or did an infected person sneeze into it) and the surface texture.

On texture, hard surfaces—particularly those that are frequently touched, such as doorknobs, keys, phones, and gas pumps—are classed by the WHO as “high-priority” to clean. On soft surfaces, like textiles, the virus seems to persist for shorter periods, studies by both the WHO and Harvard Health have found.

So by the time your package of secondhand clothing reaches you, even if it was packed and sent by an infected person, the virus is unlikely to persist on its fabrics.

For clothing, a warm wash with detergent will act as an extra precaution. Items with hard surfaces, like bags, shoes, or belts, will likely need a little more attention. Wiping them thoroughly with disinfectant before washing your hands for at least 20 seconds should be be more than enough, but if you are still cautious, you could wait a few days before their first use.

What about the packaging my order will arrive in?

Some reports suggest that COVID-19 can persist between several hours and two days on paper and cardboard, and far longer on plastic. These could be underestimates at this point in time.

While the contents of your secondhand shop are likely to have been handled by only the seller, the package will have passed through many pairs of hands before reaching your door.

Keeping this in mind, most national governments are urging citizens to either wash their hands after handling or opening the mail, or to use disposable gloves. Maintaining social distancing with your delivery person is also crucial; most shipping companies have already implemented measures to help with this.

What precautions are sellers taking to protect themselves and their customers?

There’s no one-size-fits-all business approach to the pandemic, but all major resale platforms are recommending extra safety measures for both buyers and sellers.

Depop’s coronavirus FAQ, for example, urges sellers to clean items before sending and follow national and international safety guidelines set out by governments and the WHO. For buyers, the document urges patience on delivery times and caution when handling mail.

Businesses like Depop are also taking measures to protect buyers and sellers from the financial fallout of the pandemic, pausing ranking metrics, encouraging responsible spending, and linking through to governmental financial support resources.

If you’re shopping either through a resale platform or at an independent brand and want more information for reassurance, sending a DM is a good bet.

It is worth noting that some sellers who are considered to be high-risk, living with a high-risk person, or reliant on trips outdoors to source new stock may be closing their stores temporarily. So be sure to check in before you buy.

Will my order put postal workers at risk?

In most places where either full or partial lockdown restrictions are in place, national and private postal services are considered “key/essential” and continuing to operate.

However, due to social distancing measures, higher sickness rates and the need for some staff to self-isolate or shield vulnerable loved ones, delivery times are likely to be longer— especially because online sales are up 25% month-on-month in the US.

More importantly, it is worth looking up the measures your national or private courier services are implementing to protect their staff and customers before placing an order and anecdotal stories from the staff. A quick Ecosia search reveals that postal workers for the UK’s national service, Royal Mail, are taking union action over their employer’s failure to provide them with PPE and hand sanitizer.

Would it just be safer to shop new?

The idea that new products are inherently more hygienic than those that have already been used has been pushed hard by certain organizations amid the pandemic, particularly Big Plastics lobby groups.

However, even new fashion—if it comes from a big-name store rather than a one-person artisanal business—will have been handled by numerous people before it reaches you. Fashion For Good estimates that the average pair of jeans is touched by 100 people in the supply chain. There is always a small chance that your new piece is a recent return, as well.

Many secondhand stores involve just one person picking, packing, and sending orders. In contrast, big-name retailers such as Asos are being accused of staffing their industrial-scale warehouses as usual, breaking social distancing measures and putting staff health at risk. UK-based e-fashion retailer PrettyLittleThing has said it will not shut its warehouse even though fashion retail has been classified as “non-essential” by Ministers, simply because there is continued demand. In other words, our orders are giving these big brands the mandate to flout safety measures.

Can I shop secondhand in-person?

Well over 100 countries worldwide had instituted either a full or partial lockdown by the end of March, affecting billions of people, BBC reports.

Most national lockdown measures include the closure of stores deemed “non-essential,” including consignment stores, thrift shops, and other fashion retailers.

In places where these stores are beginning to slowly reopen, including New Zealand, Germany, and parts of China, the official line is to follow governmental advice on health and safety. Some actions you may either be required to take when shopping, or wish to take for your own peace of mind, include:

  • Waiting outside shops to ensure there aren’t too many people inside at once
  • Remaining 6ft (2m) from other customers and staff at all times
  • Wearing protective items like gloves and masks
  • Only touching items you intend to purchase

If in doubt, exercise caution. Going secondhand shopping may be fun, but it is ultimately not worth your health, or a hefty fine.

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