HEALTHY LIVING
07/10/2014 08:50 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2014

The Gross Truth About Trying On A New Swimsuit

Silvia Otte via Getty Images

Trying on a new swimsuit is enough to cause nightmares, but not for the reason you think. It turns out the scary part of sampling a new suit goes far beyond the horrors of the changing room's florescent lighting and has to do instead with a thin strip of paper attached to the swimsuit's bottom. Or, more accurately, the paper's potential contamination with things like fecal matter and an assortment of potentially illness-inducing bacteria.

Most women's swimwear comes with a removable sanitary liner meant to protect against fluids and other germs. Some companies even anchor return policies to the intact placement of the strips in an effort to provide cleaner clothing for customers. But according to experts, they don't need to bother: Those hygienic strips in the crotch of new suits aren't exactly a safeguard against contact with bacteria or viruses.

Dr. Philip Tierno, a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University's School of Medicine, has conducted research on the microflora and human secretions found on a variety of clothing items bought in stores, from underwear to dresses. Predictably, he found a slew of filth, including skin, fecal and respiratory tract bacteria, along with vaginal organisms like yeast. The articles of clothing that carried the most flora were swimsuits, underwear and other intimate items.

In the course of his research, the quality of the store didn't matter when it came to how dirty the swimsuits were, Tierno told The Huffington Post. Whether the shop is high- or low-end, as long as people are trying on clothes, there will always be tell-tale signs of bacteria.

What did seem to matter, according to Tierno, was the skimpiness of the swimsuit. Though women are often advised to leave on underwear for added protection, many removed it so they could see how their new suit would actually fit. And the more revealing the swimwear, the more likely a woman is to remove her underwear before slipping it on. Some of the women in Tierno's research, perhaps bolstered by a false confidence in the liner's ability, even removed it. "Not everyone does that, but some women may not be aware that the strip is not as protective as they think," he said. "Sometimes they put them on backward, with the sticky side down. Other people may just take it off altogether, and [then] the garment is riddled with organisms."

But just because the average swimsuit hanging on a store rack is a veritable petri dish, is it an actual health threat? In other words, what are you really risking when you try on a suit in the dressing room?

"The good thing is that most people have a very robust immune system, so they can usually fight off the small number of organisms they may get on their body," said Tierno. "The fact that you come into contact with one doesn't mean you're going to get sick."

For example, while around 25 percent of people carry staphylococcus -- one type of bacteria that could be lurking on unpurchased swimsuits -- many of these common strains do not pose an infection risk.

That said, the risk of contracting something isn't exactly zero. Fecal organisms, like the ones found in Tierno's research, can carry a whole host of diseases, including Hepatitis A and ETEC, or traveler's diarrhea. Other microbes like MRSA, a medication-resistant and potentially life-threatening bacteria, and streptococcus, which can cause everything from strep throat to a flesh-eating disease (in an extreme example), can be a concern. Common germs like salmonella or norovirus (the stomach flu) can live on swimsuits in the store, too, Tierno said.

Even though the risk is remote, there are some simple ways to minimize the risk of contact during a swimsuit shopping spree.
  1. Wear protection. Because swimsuit liners can be easily removed and are often worn by more than one person, Tierno recommends keeping your underwear on when trying them on. Then, be sure to wash that pair of undies when you get home.
  2. Wash your suit. Buying a new swimsuit that's been tried on by others is very much like buying used clothing from a thrift store in terms of germs, says Tierno. Pop your new suit in the washing machine before heading to the beach. Soapy water will dislodge the germs that may otherwise make you sick. Even for men, who may be less likely to try on trunks in the dressing room, washing is still key. The articles often come from foreign countries and have been contaminated, not only by dirty hands, but by germ-ridden machinery.
  3. Hit the sink. It's not only about cleaning the swimsuit -- cleaning yourself is just as vital when it comes to trying on swimwear. "Hand washing is the single most important thing to do to protect yourself after handling dirty items," Tierno tells The Huffington Post. "So don't go to eat directly after buying your swimsuit."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article listed salmonella as a virus.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.

CONVERSATIONS