As an enthusiastic shopper, I know that few things are more entrancing and bewitching than a brand-new piece of clothing, still wrinkle-free and perfectly pressed, smelling sweetly of the department store. Eventually, the garment will stretch and fade, so that first wearing is one of the shopper’s greatest pleasures.
But even though new clothes may look and smell fresh, they’re actually anything but. Recently, Good Morning America enlisted the help of a bacteriologist and discovered that new clothes harbor dozens of strains of germs and bacteria, from dirty to disturbing.
An Unsanitary Surprise
The GMA team purchased fourteen different garments, from panties to jackets, at three stores with varying price points. Dr. Philip Tierno, PhD, a microbiologist and immunologist at New York University, tested the items, and what he found shocked everyone. The clothes contained respiratory secretions, skin fragments, vaginal organisms, Candida yeast, and other bacteria. The most contaminated areas on the garments were in the armpit and groin areas.
Tierno did tell GMA that it’s unlikely that anyone would contract a serious illness through contaminated clothes, but that’s not likely a risk many people would be willing to take. Certain germs, like the Norovirus, which causes stomach upset and diarrhea, could potentially survive on the clothes for several weeks.
Oh, the Places They’ve Been
New clothes may be new to us, but few people stop and think about all the people and places those garments have been in contact with before we take them home. They’ve been shipped, stored, and displayed, numerous other people (with varying standards of personal hygiene) have potentially tried them on, and some items may have even been purchased and subsequently returned. People try on clothes when they’re sick; they try on clothes when they’re sweaty or unshowered. Stores may request that customers not try on panties or bathing suits without underwear, but there’s no guarantee that all customers will follow the recommendation. The result of all this human contact is that “new” clothes can be just as germy as public restrooms.
We like to imagine that garments undergo some sort of decontamination process when they’re returned to a store, but that’s simply not the case. In March 2010, Today did a special report on return practices at several popular chain stores, including Victoria’s Secret, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale’s, and found that stores not only unquestioningly accepted undergarments for return, but also put the returned items right back out on the sales floor for resale. Even garments that reporters had marked with simulated stains were accepted and retagged for purchase.
NYU’s Dr. Tierno recommends wearing adequate undergarments when trying on clothes, and not just full-coverage panties instead of thongs—think camisoles, thin T-shirts, or other layers that put a protective barrier between your skin and the new garment. These precautions are especially important when you’re trying on bathing suits and lingerie. Once you bring new clothes home, run them through the wash before wearing them, or tumble them in the dryer for one cycle to kill any lingering microbes.
When it comes to funk, don’t forget about shoes. Always wear socks or nylon stockings when trying them on, because a previous shopper could have left behind the fungus that causes athlete’s foot or the virus that causes plantar warts. Both can survive easily in warm, moist environments, and both are highly contagious. When you bring new shoes home, a quick once-over with disinfectant spray should help kill any organisms living on them.
If you find it distressing to think about the germs that accumulate on clothing, imagine the microbes that are lurking on tester cosmetics. After numerous people apply the products to their mouths, eyes, and faces, the items end up harboring huge quantities of bacteria. A study that Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia conducted found that tester units of makeup and beauty products contained bacteria such as staph, streptococcus, and E. coli. The units were found to be contaminated regardless of location, whether high-end department stores, specialty stores, or discount retailers were carrying them. The lead researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Brooks, noted that when products were tested on Saturdays (the busiest day of the week), 100 percent of the products had soilage.
The FDA cautions against sharing makeup—even between friends— because the products can harbor contaminants such as the viruses that cause conjunctivitis (pinkeye) and herpes cold sores. The risk of contracting a serious disease from dirty cosmetics is greater than that from clothes, since we apply cosmetic products nearer to our eyes and mouths.
When testing cosmetics or beauty products, pay attention to how the testers are handled before sampling. Do the employees disinfect them between uses? Are they allowing customers to dip their hands in jars, or are they doling out samples on wooden sticks? Depending on the store, sometimes the salespeople wipe down each product after use, allow testing only under supervision, or use disinfectant wipes on lipsticks or eye shadow between customers, so look for these signs of good hygiene. Most cosmetics counters at department and specialty stores have disposable sponges, Q-tips, and implements to use when testing the products, so don’t be afraid to ask, and pass on any product that has come into contact with other customers’ mouths or faces. When in doubt, test makeup on your hand rather than your face, and never use a tester mascara, since toxins near the eyes is nothing but bad news.
The next time you venture out shopping, think about all the people who have touched, sniffed, tried on, and handled your potential purchases. Would you use a public restroom without washing your hands? While it’s not necessary to slather yourself in sanitizer for every trip to the mall, it’s a good idea to wash what you bring home before you allow it near your skin. All you’ve got to lose are bacteria.