You may not know it but your handbag is a hot zone.
If you’re like me, your entire world is in your purse or backpack. We travel with it, we set it down at restaurants, on top of bars, and on subway seats. When we sneeze, we reach inside it to grab a tissue and rub our grubby hands all over it. I liken the little bottle of Purell I keep in the outside pocket of my bag as a talisman against germs. But who am I kidding? If my bag could talk, it would ask for a HAZMAT suit.
RELATED: The dangers of dirty makeup brushes
READ MORE: The three-second rule is a myth
Why are our purses so dirty?
Think about how many things you touch before you handle your purse. According to Donna Duberg, professor of biomedical laboratory science at St. Louis University, our hands touch about 300 surfaces every 30 minutes. These surfaces — office desktops, bathrooms sinks, restaurant and kitchen counters, and door handles — are hardly bastions of cleanliness.
Public restrooms and transportation centers are the prime offenders. We set down our purses on the floor of bathrooms where bodily fluids may have leaked. Bus and train stations are also pretty grimy. The items we carry in our purse, such as cellphones, pens, money and credit cards, used tissues, food, children’s toys, and even gym clothes, can add more germs to the mix.
Germs found in and on purses can include E. coli, a coliform bacterium, which can be a source of food-borne illness; Staph aureus can cause gastrointestinal problems such as vomiting and diarrhea as well as skin infections, and mold spores are everywhere but can stick to the leather and fabric of purses, readily available to cause mild respiratory distress and some of the viruses that cause colds and the flu.
So how likely are these germs to make you sick? According to Duberg, a healthy immune system can usually tackle the germs, but kids are a different story. They’re more likely to get ill from licking or rubbing germ-y surfaces and then rubbing their eyes, nose, and mouth.
So, what can we do to keep our bags — and their contents — cleaner?
Your bag itself: Back in 2006, Charles Gerba, a microbiologist from the University of Arizona, tested purses for ABC News and found fecal bacteria. You know, the kind lying around on a bathroom floor.
The inside of your purse is no better. The bottom of purses, where everything settles, can host the germs that cause cold- or diarrhea-causing viruses.
How to keep it clean: Jolie Kerr, cleaning expert and author of the New York Times best-selling book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha, recommends emptying your bag to get rid of trash and anything else that doesn’t belong in your handbag. Dump it all out and take stock.
“Shake the empty bag over the trashcan to get out dirt and lint and cat hair,” Kerr suggests.
Duberg recommends checking your bag for cleaning instructions. If you’ve got a leather or suede bag, take it your local shoe repairperson and ask if it’s OK to wipe it down weekly. If you’ve got a fabric bag, consider washing it on the delicate cycle.
Your keys: I figured my keys would be a likely culprit for germs to set up shop, but according to Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and author of the best-selling book The Germ Files, said they’re not the most popular bug spot.
“The microbial load on keys is quite low,” he said. “You may find environmental bacteria and species associated with the skin but few to no pathogens.”
How to keep them clean: Wipe them down with a disinfectant cloth.
Your phone: I tend to clean my phone by wiping it down with a napkin left over from lunch or, when I’m in a hurry, on my shirt sleeve. Who hasn’t looked at her phone at the end of a long day and seen a shudder-inducing smear of makeup and sweat?
“Mobile devices were once considered to be low risk,” said Tetro. “ But recent studies have shown that they can become covered with bacteria and viruses, including pathogens that can cause infections, particularly for those with weakened immune systems.
How to keep it clean: Same as your keys — wipe it down daily.
Your makeup: I’ve got quite a few lipsticks rattling around in my bag, plus a few items in a small bag. I tried to think when I last replaced them and I was appalled to realize that it had been at least a year. Why throw out perfectly good makeup when it still looks usable, right?
“Makeup is a great place for bacterial and fungal growth; there are diagnostic tests to find the most harmful species,” said Tetro. Escherichia coli (E. coli), Candida albicans, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Aspergillus niger can cause a variety of irritations and possible infections. Yuck!
How to keep it clean: Toss your old makeup bag and get a new one. While you’re at it, toss any mascara that’s more than three months old, and keep your eye pencils sharpened. Soak your blush brush with baby shampoo or professional brush cleaner. Wipe down your lipsticks with alcohol, and toss gunky glosses with questionable-looking applicators.
Duberg recommends wiping off makeup products such as lipstick and pressed-powder compacts. Use small bottles of lotion so you can toss them when empty and get fresh ones.
Your laptop: According to Tetro, laptops are pretty much the same as mobile devices, germ-wise. The only difference is the keyboard, which can get “pretty dense” in terms of contamination. While bacteria are always a concern, yeasts and molds are the most likely source of trouble.
RELATED: Four foods you should never reheat
How to keep it clean: Experts recommend mixing a few drops of mild dish detergent like Dawn with a cup of warm water and wiping down your laptop’s top and bottom panel with a lint-free cloth. Compressed air is great for getting rid of crumbs and other crud that has accumulated between the keys. Then use isopropyl rubbing alcohol to clean the keys, being careful not to let drops of moisture get under the keyboard.