During the cold walk to the subway, your nose starts running and you casually dab it with your gloved hand. On the train, you hold onto a railing, touched by thousands. On the walk to the office, you rub your nose again.
Yet, many inadvertently use their gloves as a tissue without thinking of the germy consequences. We wash our hands, but forget to wash our gloves, even during the winter flu season.
“People use gloves to shield themselves,” says Maria Whitaker, an infection prevention specialist at Cortland Regional Medical Center in Cortland, New York, and a board member of Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.
Germaphobes may think gloves protect them. From the cold, yes. From germs, no.
Gloves pick up everything bare hands do and few people wash their gloves frequently enough.
Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona, hasn’t studied winter accessories, but that doesn’t mean they’re germ-free.
“I would expect a lot of bacteria to grow [on gloves]. They tend to smell after a while and that means there are probably a lot of bacteria,” he says.
Gloves may carry e-coli, the cold virus (rhinovirus) and influenza virus —especially if people don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom and then put the gloves back on, Gerba says.
Gloves can also have respiratory syncytial virus and other respiratory bacteria thriving on them, says Whitaker. Whatever nasty is floating out there, we can be picking it up on our gloves.
The type of glove also makes a difference: leather gloves might make it easier to transfer germs, much like latex, says Gerba. And because they need to dry cleaned, they rarely get a good cleaning.
The flu virus can live on clothing like gloves and scarves for two or three days, while diarrhea-causing viruses, such as rotavirus and norovirus, may thrive for as many as four weeks, says Gerba.
“[Scarves] could have your own germs. If you were coming down with something it would make you sicker. If the scarf was still moist and [someone else touched it], it could spread with the other person,” Whitaker says.
Wash scarves and gloves at least once a week, says Nasia Safdar, medical director of infection control for University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison.
“Anytime there is visible soilage, those gloves need to be cleaned," says Safdar.
While cotton blend gloves and scarves are the easiest to clean by throwing in the washer, wool can be hand-washed with warm water and a gentle detergent, without causing shrinkage. Just make sure to thoroughly rinse the soap out of the gloves and pat dry before allowing to air dry.
And whatever you do, don't remove your gloves with your mouth. Remove your gloves from back to front like healthcare workers do, suggests Gerba.
Also, good hand hygiene helps.
“You should always wash your hands when you take off your gloves,” says Whitaker. “You do have a risk of contaminating your hands [from your gloves].”
Finally, allow your gloves and scarves to air dry, instead of stuffing them into a bag or pockets, says Safdar. And, even if you're worried about touching public spaces, it's better to take off your gloves first.
“Try not to touch [ATMs, crosswalk buttons, railings, shopping carts] with a gloved hand. It’s much easier to sanitize a bare hand.”