Dirty Purses: Is Your Bag Making You Sick?

Purses, Gym Bags, and Brief Cases Can Harbor Dangerous Germs (Photo: Getty Images)What are contents of the average handbag? For most women the answer is: a wallet, a cellphone, lipstick, keys — and hundreds of thousands of E. coli and other harmful bacteria.

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A recent U.K. study revealed that about a third of those surveyed admitted that they never clean their purses, briefcases, or gym bags. It also reports that 100 percent of bags swabbed and lab tested were contaminated with harmful bacteria like E. coli, which can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting, and fecal streptococcus, which is associated with pneumonia and bacterial meningitis.

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This data backs up previous research that discovered that the number of bacteria on some purse handles rivals what can be found in a toilet bowl. Other studies have detected bacteria that can trigger skin infections and viruses that cause cold and flu on handbags.

"I don't want to make people paranoid, but yes, purses are dirty," Donna Duberg, assistant professor of clinical laboratory science at St. Louis University, tells Yahoo Shine.

Duberg says that the handles and bottoms of bags are hot spots for picking up bacteria and viruses. The handles get touched all the time and the bottoms are left on dirty floors and then get placed on surfaces such as kitchen countertops or tables, which can lead to the contamination of food. It can take up to three days to get sick after exposure, so it's often hard to pinpoint exactly where an infection stemmed from.

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Dangerous germs can also lurk inside bags, introduced by items like keys, makeup cases, and often cell phones. "Nobody wipes off their cell phone, and most people take them everywhere, including the bathroom," says Duberg. Other common contaminants include shoes and used tissues. If you use your purse to brown-bag your lunch, be aware that food crumbs are, as Duberg puts it, "bacterial buffets" that encourage germs to proliferate.

Here are some common-sense ways you can keep your bag clean and avoid getting sick.

  • When you purchase a new bag, consider whether the material can be easily cleaned. "If you have children and carry around snacks and toys in a bag, you want to be able to throw it in the washing machine," says Duberg.
  • Clean your bag inside and out regularly with a disinfecting wipe. Let it sit for 30 seconds, which will kill 99 percent of bacteria and viruses, and then rinse with a damp cloth. If you are concerned about whether the wipe will damage the fabric, do a spot test on the bottom and avoid wipes with bleach.
  • Wipe off the contents of your bag, such as your cell phone and makeup containers, with alcohol or disinfecting wipes. Duberg washes her keys with soap and water weekly and more frequently during cold and flu season.
  • If you carry food in your bag, put it in a zip-top plastic bag to keep it from being contaminated by germs. Inherently dirty items like shoes should also be bagged to avoid introducing bacteria and viruses.
  • Wash your hands frequently, and try to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Even if you pick up germs, "you'll break the cycle of infection," says Duberg.

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