One of the things that grosses me out most in this world is when my bed winds up in contact with “outside clothes.” You know: the clothes I wore to the grocery store, or out to dinner, or wherever else I went outside my home. Something about knowing those clothes were touching public surfaces before touching the sacred place where I sleep really makes my skin crawl.
The thing is, just because something feels gross or unhygienic doesn’t always mean it’s actually dangerous or going to do any of the things my anxieties tell me it might, like make me sick. So I spoke with a couple of experts to find out how big a deal it really is to wear “outside clothes” on your inside furniture.
The chances you’ll track something contagious into your home on your clothes are pretty slim.
Turns out, my concerns aren’t totally invalid—but it’s not super likely that clothing is a primary source of infectious illness, says Thomas A. Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “In the infectious disease world, there’s uncertainty about relative importance [of clothing] in the role of transmission,” he tells SELF. It’s just not really clear how much clothing and other textiles can contribute to disease spread. But it could theoretically play some sort of role under the right circumstances, Dr. Russo says, even if it’s small.
“Certainly our linens and clothes play a role [in transmitting pathogens], but it’s probably more of an intermediate role,” Dr. Russo says. Experts aren’t really concerned that germs on clothing directly make us sick; it’s more that clothing that has picked up certain pathogens can potentially do so if all of the stars align just right. For example, if you’re wearing clothing that has an illness-causing pathogen on it, and you touch that exact pathogen-containing spot for significantly long enough that those microbes wind up on your fingers, then you immediately touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. “The risk isn’t zero, but I think the risk is very low,” Dr. Russo says.
Part of the reason for this is because your risk of getting sick isn’t just dependent on a pathogen being present. There also has to be a critical mass of any microbe in question for it to cause infection. Some bacteria and viruses require a small presence to cause illness; others require a larger load of potential infection-causing microbes. Also, many pathogens that cause GI and respiratory illnesses are not stable for very long outside the body, Dr. Russo adds. And clothing fibers can even trap particles to a degree, keeping them from spreading and transferring onto other items or your hands. “The pathogens aren’t as bioavailable as they are if someone coughs and you breathe it in directly, for example,” Dr. Russo says.
Of course, we can’t not talk about COVID-19 in this context. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of talk about fomites, which are inanimate objects that can carry infection. At first, there was significant concern that the SARS-CoV-2 virus could spread rapidly and easily via these contaminated objects. Eventually, experts realized it is vastly more likely for someone to catch COVID-19 through respiratory droplets and aerosols than through fomite contact.1
You can further mitigate this already small “outside clothes” risk by practicing good hand hygiene. “For many pathogens, including respiratory and GI pathogens, if your hands are contaminated, you then subsequently have to touch the mouth or eyes or nose to get sick,” Dr. Russo says. If you’re diligent about washing your hands before doing things like touching your face or preparing food, you’ll stave off most bugs that do find their way into your home. And if we’re talking about items that are most likely to track potential pathogens and general grossness into your living space, those would be your shoes—so create your shoes-in-the-house policy with that in mind.
If you have seasonal allergies, you’ll want to be more careful with wearing “outside clothes” inside.
So you’re not super likely to catch a contagious illness through your clothes, but a lot of common allergens can and do hitchhike on our clothes and get into our homes, Denisa E. Ferastraoaru, M.D., assistant professor of medicine in allergy and immunology and attending physician at Einstein/Montefiore and Jacobi Medical Centers, tells SELF.