How vigilant should I be at the grocery store?

Experts weigh in on how to grocery shop safely


April 23, 2020 

Grocery store dread

Going to the grocery store is a much more stressful experience than it used to be. New safety protocols, like wearing a mask and physical distancing, has made shopping feel like a daring necessity.

But how vigilant should we be while carrying out errands? Should we suit up with mask, gloves and Clorox wipes? And do we need to sanitize every box of cereal when we get home?

Experts at North Carolina State University have differing opinions, but they all agree on one principle. You’ve heard it before. Washing your hands before and after you shop is your best line of defense. Simple soap and water work best.

Here’s what else:

Should I wear gloves?

Virologist Frank Scholle, PhD. and chemist Reza Ghiladi, PhD., said that if wearing gloves puts you at ease when shopping, then wear them. But it’s important to remove them properly.

“You want to grab the glove on the outside with your other gloved hand and roll it inside out like you’re folding a sock,” said Scholle. “Then of course wash your hands afterward.”

Scholle said he does wear gloves while shopping, but he’s also paying more attention to the surfaces he’s touching in the store.

Some surfaces are safer than others because of the virus’ structure. The coronavirus has a simple shape: it’s bits of genetic material wrapped in a greasy envelope of protein and fat. Therefore, if it dries, it dies.

Porous materials like cloth and cardboard dry the virus faster (within 24 hours) than hard surfaces like glass or metal. As a result, Scholle said he’s more cautious with the cheese refrigerator than the cereal aisle. Also, high-touch areas like a credit card keypad could be riskier.

“I always use my pinkie on the keypad,” said Scholle.

Some grocery stores have been vigilant about wiping down high-touch surfaces like cart handles. But wiping them down yourself might not be a bad idea, and gloves can add another layer of protection.

However, Ghiladi said that if wearing gloves causes you to behave less cautiously, then forego them. “If you’re still touching your face while wearing gloves, that defeats the purpose,” he said. “Or if you neglect to wash your hands because you’ve been wearing gloves all day.”

Bottom line: wear gloves if it makes you feel less anxious. But take them off properly and continue to diligently wash your hands. If you don’t have gloves, washing your hands before and after you shop will work too.

On masks

Oh, the mask confusion. Originally authorities like the World Health Organization asked the public to refrain from stocking up on masks in an attempt to save them for health professionals.

But that recommendation was reversed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month when they advised people to start wearing masks in public.  The rationale from the CDC is that wearing a mask will block droplets from sneezes and coughs. Although most homemade masks and bandanas won’t block the tiny coronavirus from infiltrating it, if more people are wearing masks, those tiny droplets will have less chances to disperse and land on surfaces or other people.

“Even if you have a relatively ineffective mask, wearing it can help block transmission,” said Scholle. “Small contributions might add up to make a difference.”

Scholle said his mask is nothing fancy. “I just use some cloth and rubber bands, like the CDC’s video recommended.” 

Wearing the mask correctly matters. Here’s how to wear them properly:

-Completely cover your nose, mouth and chin
-Refrain from touching/fiddling with your mask while out
-Make sure it fits snugly around your face
-Remove it when you’re safely home and wash frequently

Reza said psychologically facemasks are important to remind us that collectively, we’re taking this pandemic seriously.

Bottom line: Wear a mask and wear it properly.

Should I sanitize my groceries?

Sanitizing groceries, according to NC State food safety specialist Ben Chapman, PhD., is not necessary and even a little bit silly.

“As we look at these clusters of illnesses, food and food packaging are not part of those clusters,” said Chapman. “So far, being around people is what spreads the disease. Nothing else.”

Chapman said that while food settings—like grocery stores and restaurants—have been linked to disease outbreaks, it’s because people congregate in those settings. According to the CDC, it’s primarily respiratory droplets from infected people that causes disease transmission, as well as contaminated surfaces. 

“If you have the means to sanitize every item, go for it,” said Chapman. “But I’m personally saving my sanitizer for riskier situations, like cleaning surfaces in my house if someone gets sick.”

Chapman said that a far more practical approach is to wash your hands before and after putting away your groceries.

“It might not be as sexy, but handwashing is a way more effective strategy to reduce risk," he said.

Instead of sanitizing your groceries, you could leave them on the counter for 24-hours without touching them, which is plenty of time for the virus to become inert.

Food safety protocols always recommended washing produce, and that hasn’t changed said Chapman. Never use soap or diluted chlorine to wash your produce, as both can cause health problems.

Bottom line: Sanitize your groceries if you want, but there’s no evidence linking food or food packaging to disease outbreaks.