For many women, the purse is practically like an appendage, an extension of self. We take them everywhere and carry everything we need in them. Usually we focus on everything inside our handbags (keys, wallets, cell phones and valuables), but what about the outside of that bag? Have you ever thought about what's hitchhiking along there?
In a typical day, the typical purse might be set on the ground, in a stroller, on the floor of a car, on a changing table, in a shopping cart or on a restroom floor. Then in the rush to get in the door upon arriving home, it's all too easy to set that same purse right on the kitchen table or countertop where we prepare food or serve meals to our families.
So what kind of germy bacterial life could that purse be harboring on the outside?
WSBT's Fact Finder team obtained test swabs from Sherry Labs in Warsaw and asked Michiana area women if we could test the bottom of their purses where their bags come in contact with the rest of the outside world.
We tested women's purses at the public library in downtown South Bend. We swabbed bags among women visiting the Potawatomi Zoo. We even set about sampling the bottom of purses among women in the newsroom!
Many of our purse participants were reticent, fearing the worst when it came to how their bags would do.
"It goes wherever I go and God only knows how many germs it's exposed to," remarked one of the women who allowed us to test the bottom of her bag.
"Okay, this is a little gross," commented another.
The big surprise was what we found among our relatively small unscientific sample size of 20 purses. Only 10 percent of the bags came back above "safe contact levels." The standard Sherry Labs used to come up with that data was the bacteria threshold needed to shut down a swimming pool.
Only two bags had that capability. And wouldn't you know it? They both belonged to women in the WSBT newsroom! Those bags came in with total bacteria counts of 280 and 750. As a point of comparison, a swimming pool water sample that tests 200 or higher for total bacteria means the pool gets shutdown. None of the bags we tested showed positive hits for total coliform or E.coli.
So great news, right? Not so fast says Sherry Labs microbiologist Keith Klemm.
"Other studies that have been conducted on women's bags have found higher bacteria counts including four out of five testing positive for fecal matter, E.coli," says Klemm.
In fact, we contacted the creator of one of those studies, Kelly A. Reynolds who is an Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Arizona. She says in her study, total bacteria counts were "usually off the charts." She agrees with Klemm that our study did not provide typical results for bacteria or coliform. In other words ladies, don't be lulled into a false sense of security based on our small sample of results.
Another big surprise in our study came at the hands of one of the women we met at the zoo, Nancy Vick of South Bend. Her purse was the cleanest of all the bags we tested. And the likely reason why is ingenious.
"This is a purse that you take the outside cover all the way off. It's a magnetic type of connecting, but you can fully clean it with all types of different cleaners and disinfectants," explains Vick.
Her purse is designed with what you might call a suit of armor. A cover that snaps on with a magnet system and can snap off so that when she sets the purse down at home, the surface that is touching her living environment is clean and has been largely protected from the germs and grime of the outside world. She cleans the snap off portion and then can snap it back into place as an outer covering next time she is ready to head out with her purse.
But for those of us who don't have a nifty purse cover like that, changing habits could go a long way when it comes to making sure that whatever is contaminating the bottom of our purses doesn't contaminate some of our most vulnerable living areas, like kitchen food prep and eating surfaces. For instance, getting in the practice of dropping your purse just inside the door when you come in, much like you might take off dirty shoes when you come in is a good habit to get into. Some purses, depending on what they are made of, can also be laundered or cleaned on the outside.
So, has anyone ever died from carrying a germy purse? No, but heightening the awareness level of the purse carrying population about what could be on the bottom of their bags may just make life a bit healthier for families who rely on mom to carry a purse that has everything they need inside of it.
And Klemm says there is a lesson to be learned here not just for women, but for men and kids too. Many men carry briefcases or bags with computers that could be harboring the same germs as purses. Kids carry backpacks that sit on buses, locker room floors and on other school surfaces. Those book bags also can be bacteria carriers. So men and kids could also benefit from getting in the habit of making sure they keep their bags off the kitchen table and countertops.