The New Necessities: 5 Essentials to Carry With You in the Age of COVID-19

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These are the things you should always have with you when you leave home to help you stay healthy and safe.
Image Credit: martin-dm/E+/GettyImages

Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Phone? Check. There was a time when these three things were all you needed anytime you stepped outside. But with safety guidelines in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, we all need to add a few more essentials to that list.

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That's not to say you have to lug a suitcase full of disinfecting products with you wherever you go, though. We spoke to a few health experts about some critical items to prioritize — ones you can store in a purse, a backpack or your car's glove compartment.

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Keeping all different needs in mind, we've rounded up a few product suggestions per item, including a best-of-the-best pick, a compact pick in some cases, for people with limited space, and a budget pick. Whichever you choose, remember to use the items as directed, and stay safe out there!

Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

1. A Reliable Face Mask

Having a mask on hand at all times is a no-brainer. Research, including a May 2020 paper in PNAS, shows that wearing one greatly reduces the spread of the novel coronavirus. Everyone should wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth in public settings and when around people who don't live in their household, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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When it comes to choosing a mask: "We always have to balance between what's most effective and what's most convenient," Sanjeev Jain, MD, PhD, board-certified allergist and immunologist and founder of Columbia Asthma & Allergy Clinic, tells LIVESTRONG.

While N95 masks are most effective because they provide a full seal around the face, Dr. Jain says that some people — especially children — find them uncomfortable, which may prompt them to take them off and wear them less. In the end, the best and most effective mask is the one you will actually wear and not fiddle with.

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There are all sorts of offerings available in designs that let you express yourself. Dr. Jain says it's important to choose something comfortable that properly covers your nose and mouth. Comfort and coverage may vary depending on the individual, so you may have to shop around a little. Or look for a mask with adjustable loops and fasteners, which are more likely to fit a range of face shapes.

Keep in mind that you'll want to have at least a handful of comfortable masks, since they need to be washed as frequently as possible — preferably every day for a cloth mask, Dr. Jain says.

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"If it's a disposable mask of some kind, then it should be changed twice a day, or at the very minimum once a day," he notes.

You may also want to carry a plastic bag with you, so when the time comes to take off your mask, you have a safe place to store it. You don't want to throw the mask into a bag with all of your other items, since that can increase the risk of everything else becoming contaminated.

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2. Hand Sanitizer

While washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to kill germs that could make you sick, hand sanitizer is a good second option when you're out and about without a sink nearby.

Odd as it may sound, there is such a thing as an unsafe hand sanitizer.

The Food and Drug Administration has only approved hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent ethanol (aka ethyl alcohol) or isopropyl alcohol, so stick with them.

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To kill germs effectively, use a quarter-sized dollop of hand sanitizer and make sure to rub it into your hands until it's dry.

There are products on the market that do not contain any alcohol, and while they haven't been proven ineffective, they also haven't been proven to work, says Dr. Jain, so it's best to use what you know gets the job done.

Along with alcohol-free sanitizers, Dr. Jain says it's also important to avoid products that contain methanol — a substance that "is toxic and should not be used." Your best bet is to check the back of the label before you buy a product.

Whether you want your hand sanitizer to come with a fancy scent or in a compact case is entirely up to you.

Shop These Hand Sanitizers

  • Best: Grove Collaborative Hydrating Hand Sanitizer ($7.95, Grove)
  • Compact: Hand Sanitizer Travel Spray, 10 Pack Mini Pocket Size Mist Pump Sanitizers ($18.95, Amazon)
  • Budget: Suave Hand Sanitizer Unscented ($3.19, Target)

3. Disinfectant Wipes

If you're fortunate enough to live in an area where disinfectant wipes are readily available, it'd be wise to stock up and keep them handy — whether in your car, your purse or your backpack (but please don't hoard these supplies).

These are great for on-the-go living, as you can use them to wipe down surfaces, says Dr. Jain. You can also use them to sanitize your phone and other items you tend to touch a lot.

Alternatively, if you're having trouble finding these, you could look for those medical wipes you might find in a first aid kit or in your doctor's office. These generally contain isopropyl alcohol, which Dr. Jain says "is equally effective at getting rid of the virus." These tend to be much smaller than standard disinfectant wipes, though, which can be annoying and less economical.

If you can't find either types of wipes, or would prefer a DIY solution, Dr. Jain says you can make your own antiviral disinfectant surface cleaner by pouring some alcohol (100 proof or higher) in a spray bottle and cleaning surfaces with that. You can wipe the surface down with a paper towel or reusable cloth (just make sure to wash the cloth before reusing it).

Shop These Disinfectant Wipes

  • Best: Winner Alcohol Prep Pads, 4-Ply Square Cotton Pads - 50 ct ($10.99, Amazon)
  • Compact: 40-Pack Disinfecting Alcohol Wipes ($5.99, Teton Sports)
  • Budget: Up&Up Alcohol Swabs - 200ct ($2.99, Target)

4. Sunscreen

Sunscreen is an everyday must, but especially when you're spending a lot of time outside (yes, even if it's cold out). And since outdoor dining and other outdoor activities are deemed lower risk than being indoors, per the CDC, many of us are spending more time under the sun than usual.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen that's SPF 30 or higher. Choose one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays — sometimes the bottle will just say "broad spectrum," says Margot Savoy, MD, MPH, chair and associate professor of family and community medicine, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and Temple University Hospital.

Water resistance is also an important factor, especially if you'll be in the water or if you sweat a lot. "Check the bottle for how often it needs to be applied," she says, as it's very rare that a single application will do the trick. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests reapplying every two hours when outdoors.

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Be extra careful to cover spots that are ripe for sun exposure, including the ears, nose and top of the head (especially for those who have less hair).

"Also, just because it is cloudy doesn't mean you can skip the sunscreen," Dr. Savoy says. "UV rays can still damage your skin when it isn't a bright sunny day."

If you don't mind a few extra layers, you might also consider wearing UVA- and UVB-resistant clothing for added sun protection.

Shop These Sunscreens

  • Best: PLAY Everyday Lotion SPF 50 with Sunflower Extract 5.5 fl oz ($32, Supergoop)
  • Compact: Everywhere Sun Stick SPF 30 ($20, 100 Percent Pure)
  • Budget: All Good Sport Sunscreen Lotion Water Resistant - SPF 30 ($13.99, Target)

5. A Water Bottle

Staying hydrated is always a healthy goal, but stopping at a convenience store or rest stop for a drink exposes you to germs that you could otherwise avoid by having your own water bottle with you.

"Personally, I find I am more apt to drink water if I have it on me and it's cold, so I like to use an insulated, reusable water bottle," says Dr. Savoy.

Keep in mind that you are going to need to drink more water than usual if you're exercising or sweating a lot, she says. And be mindful of what liquids you're hydrating with; "caffeine is a diuretic," Dr. Savoy says, so "while coffee, soda or tea may whet your whistle, you may actually lose more fluid over the day."

What makes the perfect water bottle for you may be entirely different for a friend, so feel free to test out a few, and drink plenty! (And don't forget to clean those water bottles.)

Shop These Water Bottles

  • Best: Hydro Flask Standard Mouth Stainless Steel Water Bottle ($34.95, Hydro Flask)
  • Compact: Que Collapsible Bottle ($24.95, Que Bottle)
  • Budget: Contigo Thermalock Vacuum-Insulated Stainless Steel Water Bottle ($19.99, Contigo)

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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