How to Avoid Germs When Grocery Shopping
Before you head out to the grocery store, read up on these expert guidelines to ensure your safety.
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Avoiding germs is always a good idea, but it’s never seemed as important as it has over the past year and a half. Even as more and more Americans get vaccinated against COVID, it’s still important to avoid germs and be smart, especially when heading to places where you’re most likely to catch coronavirus. Since grocery stores are enclosed spaces with high-touch areas, they’re one of the spots you should be especially cautious. “Once seen as a mundane weekly errand, grocery shopping has become a task that requires more thought and preparation,” notes Lisa Larkin, MD, an internal medicine physician in Cincinnati and the founder and CEO of Ms.Medicine. But, really, we should have been taking certain precautions all along, because it’s not just COVID that we need to think about.
The good news is that there are a few easy steps you can take to reduce your risk of infection or infecting others when you do your weekly food run. Read on to find out the latest regarding expert guidelines, and then see how you can book your COVID-19 vaccine at Walmart, Kroger, Costco, and CVS to make grocery shopping—and everything else—exponentially safer and get us one step closer to herd immunity.
Go at times of the day when it’s less busy
You might not be a morning person, but going to the grocery store bright and early when it’s just opening might be your best option. “By avoiding large groups of people, you decrease your risk of becoming infected, as [COVID] is mainly spread through close contact with other people,” says Jonas Nilsen, MD, cofounder of Practio, a U.K.-based health company. In addition, stores often sanitize overnight, so the environment, in general, is less germy in those early hours. If you can go early on a Monday, even better: According to Google Maps data, the least crowded time to visit a grocery store is on Monday at 8 a.m. The busiest time? Between noon and 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Avoid touching your face while shopping
Early in the pandemic, we sanitized everything. While newer research shows that COVID mainly spreads via airborne transmission and direct contact with an infected person, if you touch a surface contaminated with respiratory droplets and then touch your face, eyes, nose, or mouth, it could still be a problem—something that’s also true in regard to other germs. “After touching your shopping cart or other things handled by many people in the grocery store, you are exposed to thousands of germs,” says Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York City-based internist and a gastroenterologist and a faculty member at Touro College of Medicine. “The mouth, nose, and eyes are the portal into the body, and when your unwashed hands touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, germs or microscopic droplets containing a virus are able to enter.”
Chances are, you touch your face a lot, even if you don’t realize it. A study published in the American Journal of Infection Control estimated that people touch their faces more than 20 times in a single hour, so you’ll want to be super aware of this. Wearing a mask can help prevent you from touching your mouth and nose, as well as reduce the risk of transmitting COVID (and the flu, the common cold, and anything else) to others since it serves as a physical barrier, blocking a good portion of the respiratory droplets from entering the air.
Sanitize your shopping cart or basket
Even if the store in which you shop for groceries claims to sanitize every cart, it’s a good idea to do it yourself before you trek down the aisles. “Disinfectant wipes have a germ-killing solution that kills bacteria and viruses on hard surfaces,” says Dr. Sonpal. “You can use disinfectant wipes to wipe down carts, door handles, or credit card keypads before touching these objects.” Some stores provide wipes, but it’s best to bring your own, just in case. That way, you can also use them for opening freezer and refrigerator door handles as you shop. FYI, these are the dirtiest surfaces in places you frequent all the time.
Stay six feet away as you navigate the aisles
Yep, social distancing is still important. As much as possible, try to maintain a safe, six-foot distance from other shoppers, even when wearing a mask. “This may be as simple as avoiding a crowded aisle and circling back a few minutes later,” says Dr. Larkin. Since other shoppers might not be as mindful as you are about maintaining social distance, be polite in your request that they keep their distance with a courteous “excuse me.”
Avoid paying with cash
When possible, use debit cards or other electronic forms of electronic payment, advises James Elder, DO, an internist at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth and Texas Health Physicians Group. “This will reduce the need to touch paper money or coins, which can potentially carry germs,” he says. After all, think about how many people might handle that money while it’s in circulation. If making an electronic payment is not possible, he recommends cleaning hands immediately after touching cash or coins.
Sanitize your hands
After you’re done shopping and before you get in your car or grab your car keys or smartphone, use hand sanitizer—it’s the best way to clean your hands when water and soap are not available. Just be sure that the hand sanitizer contains at least 60 percent alcohol, notes Alex Berezow, PhD, a microbiologist and the vice president of scientific affairs for the American Council on Science and Health. “Use a healthy plop (not just a tiny drop), and be sure to rub it all over the back of your hands as well,” he says. “You should use enough sanitizer so that it doesn’t evaporate as you rub your hands for 10 to 15 seconds.”
Consider delivery or pickup
This is a great option, especially for folks who haven’t been vaccinated from COVID-19 and those who may have risk factors for other diseases (e.g., individuals with an autoimmune disorder), notes Robert Hess III, a public health expert and the CEO of Hess III Consulting, a company that helps optimize hospital networks. “By having your groceries delivered, you not only avoid the germs on surfaces but also airborne germs,” he says. “Of course, your products will still have been touched by individuals in the manufacturer, supply chain personnel, clerks who put them on the shelves, and other customers who may have picked them up and your personal shopper who eventually brought them to you. So this is a great option, but [you can’t] 100 percent prevent exposure.” Still, recent data shows that the risk of contracting COVID from packages is very low.
Be kind to others
Just as you’re being mindful about your own health, be mindful about the health of others, too. “If you have an elderly neighbor who needs help, see if you can shop for them or teach them to use an online and delivery option,” suggests Dr. Larkin. “Be patient and kind with one another, especially the workers, and of course, if you are ill, please stay home and don’t expose others.” Find out how to stock up wisely, emergency or not.
Clean your reusable bags
If you are using reusable bags, make sure to wash them. This extra step will also get rid of any lingering bacteria from produce or meat, which can also make you sick. “Cross-contamination usually occurs when precooked foods touch raw meats and produce,” says Dr. Sonpal. “Many people forget to wash their reusable bags, but it is an easy way to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.”
Clean fresh produce
Dr. Sonpal recommends washing produce before eating it. “Washing produce removes germs, since produce passes through dozens of environments and hands before it enters your home,” he says. “This way, you reduce the risk of ingesting germs, debris, insects, and dirt when you eat them and can also avoid foodborne illnesses and microorganisms that are able to cause disease.”
- Lisa Larkin, MD, an internal medicine physician in Cincinnati and the founder and CEO of Ms.Medicine
- Jonas Nilsen, MD, cofounder of Practio
- Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York City–based internist and gastroenterologist and faculty member Touro College of Medicine
- American Journal of Infection Control: “Face touching: a frequent habit that has implications for hand hygiene”
- James Elder, DO, an internist at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth and Texas Health Physicians Group
- Alex Berezow, PhD, a microbiologist and the vice president of scientific affairs for the American Council on Science and Health
- Robert Hess III, a public health expert and the CEO of Hess III Consulting
- Lisa Saff Koche, MD, founder of the Spectra Wellness Solutions and author of Get Lit