June 19, 2010

Health hazards at the mall

Shopping for a new bikini, a pair of running shoes, or a hot new shade of lipstick? You likely expect to bag some fabulous deals, but you might also be taking home a concoction of microbes that could spread anything from cold sores to a staph infection. “Bacteria can live on dry clothing for three to six months,” warns Philip Tierno, Ph.D., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center.

In his research, he has routinely found respiratory secretions, skin flora and even fecal flora on clothing. But regardless of how gross it sounds, Tierno says that with a little common sense (wash your hands after shopping, wash your clothes before wearing them), the likelihood of getting sick from a shopping trip is very low.


Chances are good that whatever you put on your head has been on several heads before you. The biggest concern from all that trying on is the possibility of the transmission of lice. If a person with head lice tries on a hat and then you put it on, the critters could start a new infestation in your hair. The good news is that because lice can’t live more than a day or two without human contact, there’s a good chance they’ll die off before they can get to you.


Women’s panties and thongs are probably the most potentially problematic garments in the store. “In our research, women were allowed to try them on without underwear and return them to the rack, or even buy them, try them on at home and return them to the store,” says Tierno. “We tested sample garments and found vaginal flora and fecal flora on many of them.”

Tierno suggests trying on underwear (if you must) with your own on, but even then, be sure to wash your hands as soon as you leave the store to avoid transmitting harmful bacteria by touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Bathing Suits

Unlike underwear, most women’s bathing suits feature a so-called “hygiene strip” in the crotch. Its purpose is to allegedly protect you from exposure to the vaginal and fecal flora that could potentially lead to yeast infections, staph infections or the gastro-intestinal norovirus (which causes the stomach flu). But don’t let that little strip lull you into a false sense of security. “If other people have tried on the suit without underwear, the strip can trap organisms,” says Tierno.

The safest approach is to wear your underwear while trying on suits. And when you bring home a new bathing suit, it should be washed just as you would new underwear. “Some women must pull off the hygiene strip to try on suits and then replace it,” says Tierno. “Because when we tested bathing suits, we found organisms both on the strip and on the fabric underneath it.”
And when you buy new panties, always wash them before you wear them. “Most laundry detergents don’t contain antibacterial agents to kill things like fecal flora, so pretreat them with a little peroxide before washing with detergent,” says Tierno.


Do you wear flip flops in the gym locker room to protect yourself from athlete’s foot? Well those same fungi could be lurking in the shoe department. When people try on shoes without socks they can leave behind skin cells and possibly the fungus that causes athlete’s foot. (Try these home remedies for athlete's foot.)

You can protect your feet while trying on shoes by keeping them covered (wearing socks or those little throw-away liners that most shoe stores offer customers). And when you buy a pair of shoes, you should disinfect them to eradicate any bacteria or fungus left behind by previous shoppers. A spritz of bacteria-killing spray (like Lysol) on the inside of the shoe should kill anything potentially harmful before it gets to your feet.

Eye Makeup

Mascara is particularly notorious for growing and harboring bacteria—which is why experts recommend you toss open tubes after six months. (What is the shelf life of makeup?) “If we throw out mascara for fear of our own bacteria, imagine what might contaminate it if several people are using it,” says Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University.

To protect your eyes from conjunctivitis (more commonly known as pink eye) and other infections, you really shouldn’t test makeup directly on your eyes. If you insist on it, make sure to only test mascara at a makeup counter that provides single-use applicators. Eye pencils, liner and shadows can be tested on the back of your hand. But if you really want to try them directly on your eyes, use a Q-tip or disposable applicator for shadows and sharpen eye liner pencils before using.


You probably wouldn’t kiss someone with a cold sore, but if you try on lipstick or gloss at the beauty counter, you might be unwittingly exposing yourself to that same herpes simplex virus. “You should only use new or freshly cleaned brushes to apply lipstick,” says Alexiades-Armenackas.

At better makeup counters, you’ll see the makeup artists who work there disinfecting lipstick by dipping it alcohol or wiping off the top layer of product with an antibacterial wipe. High traffic days will mean more customers and less time for employees to clean products, so to be safest, avoid testing on weekends or any time there are people lined up to sample a new shade.

Makeup Brushes and Sponges

“Brushes, sponges, and pads are all used repeatedly and that can cause bacteria to build up on them,” says Alexiades-Armenackas. Whenever possible, apply makeup with disposable applicators (like cotton pads or single-use sponges) instead. If you go to a counter where a makeup artist is applying products for you, make sure she disinfects her brushes with antibacterial spray—and washes or disinfects her hands—before she starts working on you.

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