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New clothes, swarming with germs

In case you missed this disgusting news: Research conducted at the behest of TV's "Good Morning America" a couple of weeks ago revealed that new, store-bought clothes often are teeming with microbes, some too gross to think about.

Dr. Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center, tested new clothing from three stores, upscale and otherwise, and found them populated with all manner of bacteria, including those associated with feces, armpits and the vagina. The volume of bacteria in some instances suggested that the item of clothing had been tried on by many shoppers or even taken home, worn and returned to the store.

Talk about making your flesh crawl.

Before you panic or resolve to become a nudist, hear what Dr. Tierno told me over the phone yesterday. He points out that our bodies are naturally swarming with all kinds of microbes. But of the 60,000 known groups of germs, only about 1 percent to 2 percent (or 600 to 1,200 varieties) are pathogenic (or capable of causing illness).

Some pathogens are more easily transmitted than others, Tierno says. Norovirus, which causes gastrointestinal illness, "can live for several days on dry clothing," he explains. If a person had norovirus on her hands when trying on clothing and then returned the clothing to the rack, another person trying it on might touch her mouth or nose and introduce the virus to her own system.

Similarly, the staph bacteria known as MRSA can live on cotton clothing for six months, Tierno says. (Six months!) MRSA can be transmitted through direct or indirect contact with feces, the nose, the armpits or even the areola surrounding the nipple.

While all of this sounds repulsive and dangerous, Tierno says the risk of new clothes making you sick is "low -- and you can make it even lower." Washing your hands before you eat or touch your face, nose or mouth after trying on clothes is one way; wearing undergarments while trying on clothes is another (especially useful if you have an open cut or abrasion).

If you have a compromised immune system that makes you more vulnerable to infection, Tierno suggests washing new clothes before you wear them. (According to another report issued last fall, your washing machine may do more harm than good.)

I'm not much of a shopper to begin with (in part because I hate seeing makeup stains and smelling body odors on blouses I'm trying on). Still, I'm choosing to regard this contaminated-clothing news as good to know about, but nothing to get my knickers in a knot over. I'm certainly not going the nudist route.

What about you? Does knowing your new clothes may be infested with germs incline you to change your shopping habits?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  January 21, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Fighting aging
Next: Is that Right? Jenny Craig beats Weight Watchers in "major clinical trial"?


No, because when you look at the facts, and the number of times one gets sick over the course of a year, the reality is that this is a pretty minimal situation. In one sense, it borders on inflammatory journalism. Sure, its gross, but is it a big deal? Not really. The greater danger to our health is the over sanitizing of life. Kids are protected to such a degree that they will no longer have the immunities or resistances to bacteria and viruses as their own parents. This paranoia that the world is so unsafe and out to get us is ridiculous. A majority of us made it out of our childhoods no worse for the wear, how about we continue that trend and let our kids learn and do the same.

Posted by: JorgeGortex | January 21, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

The environment we live it has been occupied by bacteria long before we arrived. For the most part you can't see them but they are everywhere. Every breath you take is full of mold spores but see some colonies on a piece of wet drywall and people run for the hills screaming.

Many years ago I heard of a similar story. Now I always wash new clothing before wearing even if they were in a plastic packaging of some sort. Not much additional protection but mostly for the 'yuck' factor.

Posted by: RichardinPasadena | January 21, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

It's a good idea to pre-wash new clothes before wearing - but not because of germs! Germs are everywhere anyway and part of the natural world. We develop immunities to them based on exposure. It's okay. Most germs are not harmful to you anyway.

Reasons to pre-wash: Remove any excess dye in the fabric, pre-shrink before altering, soften the hand, wash out starches and other chemicals that have been applied to the surface for that very temporary "new" look, remove the odor of all those temporary finishes. (Sears used to use the most awful-smelling chemical on their perma-press sheets, shirts, etc! The laundry room smelled like a chemical factory for the first wash!) I worked in the fabric business for years and I know why to pre-wash fabric.

But don't try to return a washed garment to the store - You will have to do your trying-on at the store or at home BEFORE removing tags and laundering. You won't die of this, I promise.

Posted by: bernadete | January 21, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Another good reason to shop online - I know the clothes haven't been tried on. (And I always wash them before wearing them anyway.)

Posted by: EinDC | January 21, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

I have always washed new clothes first only because I figured the factory and trip to the store was a long dirty one. I will still wash all new things before I or anyone in the family wears them.

Posted by: jkinderteacher | January 21, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Get over it. There are more bacteria in/on our bodies than we have cells. Bacteria are everywhere. Yes, wash your hands before you eat. That's a good idea, but don't go nuts over the fact that bacteria are everywhere. Have there been any documented cases of people getting sick from trying on clothes? Any? There are so many health risks out there. There is not one of them.

Posted by: ftg_somerville | January 21, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

I used to work in a department store part-time, all the way through high school and college. What people do in fitting rooms is DISGUSTING. I worked in South Florida, and my associates and I would argue over who worked in the swimsuit area. Grossness abounds in the swimsuit department. NEVER try on a swimsuit without underwear on. Heed my warning on this!

Posted by: CAC2 | January 21, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

The germs found on the clothing can be found anywhere in the mall. Germs are a natural part of our environment. Relax.

Oh... and stop using anti-bacteria/virus gel constantly. It kills all microbes - the good and the bad. Your body wants the good for protection.

Posted by: bkshane | January 21, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

While this is very disgusting, imagine the germs on gas station gasoline handles, all manner of restaurant and take out food and utensils, hotel bedding, and pretty much everything you touch once you step out the door. All one needs to do is take a look at restrooms, even in high-end supermarkets, to know what you are dealing with: slobs and their germs are everywhere and are not segregationists.

Posted by: jharlin00 | January 21, 2010 11:52 PM | Report abuse

Thank Goodness, I am a nudist, so I don't have to worry about these things. I'm one of the 1 in 14 you meet everyday that prefers to be the way we were created.

Give skinny-dipping a try, or better yet, join us next year when we break the Skinny Dipping Guinness World Record we set in 2009. Go to to find a resort near you! I promise you'll find it good, old fashioned fun.

Posted by: dunwoody01 | January 22, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

"Similarly, the staph bacteria known as MRSA can live on cotton clothing for six months, Tierno says. (Six months!)"

I'm calling bull***t. There's no evidence cited in the artcle to support this statement; the link to the Mayo Clinic site on MRSA certainly does not. The one study I found on this subject indicates that MRSA can live on cotton for a few weeks at most.
But six months? No way.

Posted by: djjd | January 27, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

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