By Dr. Ansul Khan - a Board Certified physician, clinical researcher and dermatologist.
Astonishing Science Based Facts
The human skin is a protective and immunologically active sheath that works 24/7 to keep the bad guys out. This is one of the most important functions of this vital organ that covers 1.7 m² of the body’s surface.
Just like any good old Western-Cowboy movie, there are good guys and bad guys, and in this case, the bad guys are germs!
Living blissfully in symbiotic relationship with our skin are good micro-organisms known as non-pathogenic microflora or commensals (inhabiting the body without causing detectable harm or benefit). These harmless micro-organisms are present on the skin surface and within certain skin appendages. They like to inhabit moist or occluded areas or areas that have a higher distribution of oil and sweat glands, such as the armpit, face, groin, trunk and toe-web.
Now, what happens when the bad guys take over? Serious skin infections or irritation can occur when harmful germs move in, let’s examine how this can take place.
This is a health hazard and should not be taken lightly.
Skin Infection – How it can happen and who is more susceptible
- Breach in the barrier (skin) for any reason (cuts, wounds, burns, and abrasions).
- When your immunity is down for any reason and the body is unable to defend itself against the bad germs.
- The skin encounters a pathogenic (harmful) micro-organism (bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses) that may be present on contaminated towels or wash cloths.
- If you are immune-deficient, the normal micro-flora in your skin can in fact become pathogenic, and cause significant morbidity.
- Young children, the older population, and hospitalized individuals are far more susceptible to skin infections by cross-contamination of linen and towels.
- The gym or public pool is a prime area where cross-contamination of towels or clothes can occur, along with spread of germs.
- Diabetic individuals or those suffering from a chronic illness.
- Pregnant or nursing mothers.
Why are disposable cleansing cloths for the body and face a more scientifically sound choice than using regular non-disposable ones?
Let’s look at some reasons why skin and healthcare experts believe that disposable material is a smarter and safer choice.
Evidence from numerous microbiological studies reveals these astonishing facts that will make you think twice before re-using a face towel to cleanse your face.
Bad Germs – How they can spread
- When towels and linen are used by more than one person cross-contamination of the skin can occur.
- When someone is handling laundry using dirty hands, germs can spread.
- When towels or clothes are washed, germs can spread between clothing items, especially between underwear, face and bath towels.
- A startling study indicates that a load of laundry can contain up to 100 million E.coli (found in fecal matter) that can contaminate the next load.
- Another study revealed that a load of washed clothes using a mild detergent on a cold cycle contained 0.1 gm of fecal matter.
After reviewing these solid scientific findings is it clear that washing of clothes and towels will not reduce the risk of cross-contamination. An optimal laundry cycle is one which is hot 60C (140F) with the addition of a bleach.
It must be noted however that strong detergents and bleaches can cause severe skin irritation, dermatitis and other serious skin and health issues.
So what can be done in order to avoid serious skin irritations that occur due to harmful detergents and bleach?
You can try using disposable cloths that are a much safer choice, especially if you have sensitive skin and are worried about bleach and detergent dermatitis.
The Bad Germs – We know who you are!
Below is a simplified guide about germs and their survival times outside the body on various hard and soft surfaces (clothes, towels, face cloths) as observed from numerous microbiological studies.
COLD AND FLU VIRUSES – These kinds of viruses can persist for a few hours to days outside the body.
INTESTINAL VIRUSES- This group of viruses such as Rota virus can survive up to 2 months outside the body on hard and soft surfaces.
BACTERIA - Both gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria can survive from days to months on dry surfaces. MRSA and VRE are the most dreaded form of germs that can cause serious illness.
FUNGI – Certain fungal spores are capable of surviving for months (6 months) outside the body and are especially fond of bathroom towels and face cloths.
PARASITES- Certain parasitic species can stay dormant on soft surfaces for months.
The Clean Towel-Dirty Towel Vicious Cycle
So now that we know a little bit about the bad guys, let’s examine the clean towel-dirty towel vicious cycle.
Your bathroom and kitchen smells amazing. The scent of freshly laundered towels permeates the space, but wait, even though you’ve given your towels a thorough washing using optimal temperatures and bleach, something is happening on a microscopic level that might alarm you.
A recent and startling study at the University of Kansas revealed that even after proper laundering techniques, frequent sanitization and immaculate personal hygiene, the bad guys will prevail.
Towels (bath, face and kitchen) can quickly become significantly contaminated even though all precautions have been taken to ensure decontamination.
Moist, damp and humid conditions (bathroom, swimming pool area, public showers, and kitchen counters) will increase the speed and level of contamination.
So when you or your family member re-uses the towel, you are in fact spreading germs that have already established themselves on the towel hence increasing the risk of infection, illness and cross-contamination. Instead of cleaning your body, face or home surfaces, you are actually contaminating them by picking up germs from the towels that you thought were clean!
The study concluded that “towels were determined to be the most contaminated of all surfaces that were tested.”
Their recommendation based on the above results was to use disposable cloths and exercise vigilant sanitization as much as possible to avoid the risk of infection and illness.
Evidence Based Conclusion – The Verdict
As observed from the evidence above, bad germs have the tendency to linger on towels and washcloths even after you’ve given them a good washing. If you notice that your household members are getting sick even though good personal hygiene is maintained, it’s probably because your clothes, face cloths and towels are contaminated.
By using disposable face and body wipes, especially after visiting the gym or after being exposed to a public place, you will dramatically reduce chances of skin infection and cross-contamination.
The added bonus of using disposable cleansing cloths is that you can reduce the risk of skin irritations caused by harsh laundry detergents and bleach.
So, are you ready to make the smarter choice and opt for disposable wash cloths and facial towels?