Haute Germs: Are Handbags Making Us Sick?

With all the recent swine flu hoopla, even the most hygienically-lax of us have begun giving second thoughts to our cleanliness—soaping up for at least fifteen seconds, coughing into our elbows, and using antibacterial gel every time we enter a new room. There are endless opportunities to sterilize and re-sterilize, and it seems that we intend to use all of them as often as humanly possible. We’re nothing if not clean at this point, right? Well, true for our hands, but what about one of those other appendages women use just as much—our purse?Purses are practically a body part. They’re with us absolutely everywhere we go. Yet, I’m the first to admit, we rarely take the time to make sure their clean-factor is up to par with the rest of our body parts.

The Life of a Handbag
From the seat next to us on the subway to the bathroom floor (I know, I know, there was no hook), our purses often find themselves sitting in the dirtiest of dirty places. Yet instead of super sanitizing them like we would our hands if they touched the floor of that smelly dive bar, we simply pick them back up and forge onward with our lives, spreading the germs they pick up through our cars, homes, and even the tables on which we eat.

Karen Weaver, an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, cringes when I ask her about where her purse has been: “Oh my gosh, I have it on the classroom floor, the floor of the bathroom stall, and often the floor of the gym if I workout after work,” she says. “And that’s just in one day.”

It Is As Bad As You Think
Okay, so we know how disgusting these places are, but what effect do they actually have on our handbags? CBS did a special report on the germs lurking on the outsides of purses, and their findings were seriously traumatizing.

Microbiologists tested samples from hundreds of purse bottoms and they found some level of bacteria on every single bag—about a quarter had bacteria counts in the tens of thousands—including pseudomona, staphylococccus aureus, E. coli, and salmonella. In one sampling, four out of five purses tested positive for salmonella.

And just because we can’t pronounce these bacterias’ names doesn’t mean they can’t hurt us. These hard-to-say germs cause skin rashes, eye and skin infections, and serious skin boils. Salmonella and E. coli cause food poisoning-like symptoms, including fever, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Disgusted yet? Brace yourself, because it gets worse. Many samples of the purses also tested positive for fecal matter. When we flush the toilet, that water sprays, so anything set on the ground is likely to pick up some of it.

One woman who participated in the study had a handbag that surpassed all others in terms of its ick factor; her bag had bacteria on it that tested positive for not only feces, but also possibly vomit. The lesson here is: leave the handbag at home while clubbing. You can fit your ID and celly in a pocket or in your friend’s bag, or maybe a teeny tiny purse that never, ever hits the ground or any other surface.

Keep It Clean
There are a few things you can do to keep your purse free of sickness-inducing bacteria. Obviously, avoid putting it on the floor … anywhere. In a restaurant, grab an extra chair to use as a bag rest. In the bathroom, hang it around your neck if there’s no hook in the bathroom stall (it feels ridiculous, but it’s so worth avoiding the alternative) and throw it in a locker at the gym instead of carrying it around. And please, oh please, don’t set it on the restaurant table while paying the bill.

Leather and vinyl purses are generally cleaner than their cloth counterparts, and the purses of women who have a lot of contact with kids tend to be dirtiest. Whether you’re at a high or low risk factor for harmful bacteria, it’s always a safe bet to wipe down the bottom of the bag every day (that’s right, I said every day) with an antibacterial wipe that will kill most of the bacteria. Throw sturdy canvas bags in the washing machine on a regular basis if they can handle it.

I know I spend a lot of time being frustrated with the inside of my purse—digging around, always searching for the one thing I can’t seem to find in there—but I now realize that the outside is far scarier and worthier of more concern than the cluttered inner pockets.

So although our handbags won’t kill us, it does have the potential to make us pretty sick. Until someone convinces bar and restaurant table designers to start putting purse hangers near where we sit, it’s time we all invest in some sanitizing products for our purses.

By Allie Firestone. Want to read more? Visit DivineCaroline.com or check out these related stories:

  • Antibacterial Soaps: Unnecessary Risks, No Benefits
  • Germ-Free Electronics for Better Public Health
  • Fighting Germs on the Homefront
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