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COVID-19 Stays On Human Skin 5 Times Longer Than the Flu, Study Finds

Illustration of bacteria and viruses on a pair of hands.

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Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 can live on human skin for nine hours, which may increase the risk of COVID-19 contact transmission. 
  • The flu can survive on human skin for only 1.8 hours.  
  • Keeping hands and surfaces clean can help decrease the risk of COVID-19 and flu infection. 
  • Because COVID-19 and the flu can be spread through droplet transmission, it’s important to still wear face masks and practice social distancing.

A new study has provided researchers with insights into how the novel coronavirus (or COVID-19) differs from influenza viruses. The study, which was published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases in October, found that COVID-19 survives on human skin for nine hours. By contrast, flu viruses only live on human skin for 1.8 hours.

The findings suggest that there might be a greater risk of contact transmission for COVID-19 than the flu. Contact transmission is when an infection is spread through direct contact with an infected person or a contaminated surface (also known as a fomite).

“If the COVID-19 virus lives longer on the skin than the flu, that does not mean we should be washing our hands longer than usual,” Silvia Gnass, MSc, CIC, Infection Prevention and Control Manager at Riverside University Health System, tells Verywell. “Washing our hands with soap and water for 20 seconds is enough to eliminate the [COVID-19] virus from the skin surface.”

COVID-19 vs. the Flu

Although there are similarities between COVID-19 and the flu, such as symptoms and ways to prevent the spread of the illness, they are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2 (a coronavirus). The flu is caused by viruses in the influenza family.

Can I Still Use Hand Sanitizer?

Gnass says that both the virus that causes COVID-19 and influenza viruses can be inactivated within 15 seconds of using an alcohol-based (also called ethanol or ethyl alcohol) hand sanitizer.

However, a specific hand sanitizer's effectiveness depends on the strength of alcohol used. “Hand sanitizers need to have a strength of at least 60% alcohol and be used when hands are not visibly dirty or greasy," Gnass says.

Hand sanitizers are a convenient way to keep your hands clean but should be reserved for when you don't have access to soap and water.

Other Prevention Measures Matter

While frequent and proper handwashing is important, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, wearing a face mask, and practicing social distancing are also of critical importance to slowing the spread of either virus.

For example, touching a contaminated surface increases your probability of getting sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests routinely cleaning surfaces with soap and water to decrease contamination.

After you clean these surfaces, you should disinfect them—especially if they are frequently touched. Gnass says the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a list of approved disinfectants that kill the coronavirus and the flu virus.

If you plan to use bleach as your disinfectant, the CDC recommends only using bleach that contains 5.25% to 8.25% sodium hypochlorite. Dilute the bleach with water and keep your surroundings well ventilated.

Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding contact time (the time the surface should stay wet with the solution). The CDC recommends that the contact time should be one minute at a minimum.

While it's important to keep your hands and surfaces clean, both viruses can be spread through droplet transmission, which occurs through close contact with another person’s respiratory secretions (such as when they talk, sneeze, or cough). Therefore, you also need to continue to wear a face mask to protect yourself, as well as practice social distancing. 

What This Means For You

Even though COVID-19 stays on your skin than the flu, the recommendations for slowing the spread of both viruses are the same: keep your hands clean, disinfect the surfaces that you frequently touch, wear a face mask, and practice social distancing.

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Article Sources
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  1. Hirose R, Ikegaya H, Naito Y et al. Survival of SARS-CoV-2 and influenza virus on the human skin: Importance of hand hygiene in COVID-19Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2020. doi:10.1093/cid/ciaa1517

  2. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Similarities and differences between flu and COVID-19. Updated October 6, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Cleaning & disinfection for households. Updated July 10, 2020.

  4. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). List N: Disinfectants for coronavirus (COVID-19).