STDs & Swimsuits: The Risk of Wearing Before Washing
Ah, Summer. As thoughts of sunshine, pool time, and vacations on sandy white beaches enter our minds, another thought comes with it: swimsuits.
Should I wash this before wearing it? Can I get an STD from a new swimsuit?
Soon dressing rooms will flood with women trying on swimsuits to see which ones hide and accentuate the right body parts, and chances are, you’ll be a part of that flock. Eventually, you’ll buy one and await the perfect moment for you to reveal yourself in your brand new bikini. But, before you do, you hear a tiny voice in the back of your head asking, “Should I wash this before wearing it? Can I get an STD from a new swimsuit?”
You quickly rationalize it away by telling yourself “It’s new! It’s clean! It’s never been worn!” But is it? And if it isn’t, is there anything lurking in it that could potentially taint your taint?
If you’ve heard that voice before, hopefully, you listened to it. There are quite a few STDs you can get from new swimsuits, and you may be surprised to learn how they got there. But don’t worry! We’ve got the tips to help you stay infection free this swimsuit season.
Can You Get STDs From Swimsuits?
As you probably know, most STIs spread through direct contact, but some STIs spread through fomites. Fomites are objects (such as swimsuits) that become infected with a contaminate and have the ability to spread the infection to a new host. While many contractible infections are listed here, this is not a comprehensive list.
Easily Transferable STIs
The following STIs can be easily transmitted to a new host from an infected swimsuit.
Trichomoniasis, or “trich,” is an infection caused by a protozoan called Trichomonas Vaginalis. It can pass from vaginal discharge and can attach to surfaces, especially clothing and other fibrous materials. This parasite is anaerobic, meaning it doesn’t need oxygen for growth, and it can live outside of the body for up to several hours. Imagine this little guy living in your new swimsuit bottoms before the first time you wear them.
Pubic lice, or crabs, are small parasitic lice that generally live in the pubic hair. They can spread after an infected person comes in close contact with fabric such as towels, bed linens, or swimsuits. Crabs may not be the first STD that comes to mind as some news outlets have claimed that they’re on their way to extinction. However, that’s not the case. In recent years, incidences of pubic lice have declined, but these little buggers are not completely eradicated with sources estimating that up to 10 percent of the population still lives with the parasites.
Molluscum contagiosum is a skin infection caused by a virus. It’s characterized by lesions (small raised bumps). These lesions can range in size from a pinhead to a pencil eraser. The virus spreads through direct contact between an infected person and a non-infected person, or when an infected person comes into direct contact with clothing, fabric, or even some surfaces.
Bacterial vaginosis, or BV, is an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the vagina. Any introduction of bad bacteria into the vaginal region may throw off the already delicate ecosystem. BV thrives in synthetic fibers, like swimsuit material, and it can be hard to wash out. Researchers still debate on exactly how BV can and cannot spread, but since it’s the most common vaginal infection for women aged 15-44, it’s easy to see how this one got on the list.
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Urinary tract infections occur when bad bacteria, typically E.Coli which occurs naturally around the anus region, enter into the urethra. Researchers have found multiple instances of fecal matter on new swimsuits. That’s an easy way to introduce E. Coli and other contaminants where they don’t need to be.
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Possibly Transferable STIs
These STIs are considered possibly transferable because there are multiple variables that need to occur in order for them to be contracted.
However, if you did contract them, it would most likely happen in the dressing room.
Hep A, a virus caused by ingestion of fecal matter, has been found on new swimsuits. After trying on swimsuits, which can be a taxing endeavor, have you ever gone straight to the food court and skipped washing your hands? If your answer is yes, you’ve put yourself at risk of contracting Hepatitis A.
Hepatitis B is a virus found in bodily secretions, and it can infect a new host when he or she comes into close contact with fomites. According to the CDC, Hep B can live on fomites for up to seven days; even dry secretions such as dried blood may still contain the live virus. Introducing that virus into your system would take nothing more than you and your new swimsuit getting up close and personal.
Hep C is a bloodborne pathogen, and according to the CDC, it can live outside the body for up to three weeks. Transmission occurs if your skin is exposed to the blood of a Hep C carrier. For examples, if a carrier bleeds on a swimsuit, then you try it on exposing your skin to the virus. The chances of this happening are slim but definitely worth noting.
That’s right: ocular chlamydia or chlamydia in the eye. Chlamydia can’t survive outside the body for long. Even if you were to come into contact with a contaminated chlamydia fomite, it would need to infect suitable body tissue such as the cervix, urethra, or eye cornea. It’s unlikely that chlamydia would survive long enough away from its host to infect your nether regions (although, it is technically possible); it’s much more likely for you to touch an infected fomite and then mindlessly rub your eye. This would have to happen while the bacteria is still live, and, again, it can’t live outside the body for more than a few hours. But according to the World Health Organization, fomites can definitely contribute to the spread of ocular chlamydia.
Researchers are still unsure if human papillomavirus can be spread through fomites; some say that it can be passed through prolonged exposure to contaminated clothing while others decry that as fake news. Unfortunately, with this under investigation, it’s best to keep it in mind and remain aware that contraction could be possible.
Before you freak out, know that the risk of HIV transmission occurring via a new swimsuit is extremely low. But, there is still a risk. HIV is passed through genital fluids as well as blood. It can’t survive outside the body for very long, and for transmission, it needs to come into contact with an open wound while the virus is still live. Yes, those are a lot of variables, but there’s no way to say how much bodily fluid or how big of a wound is needed to introduce the virus into your system.
How Do Swimsuits Get Infected?
Swimsuits can become infected with germs and diseases in a multitude of ways, but from our research, there were a couple of main places where infections happen, and you may not be taking the precautions you need to, to keep yourself protected.
The most obvious reason is that these “unworn” swimsuits have come into direct contact with women who carry infections. This primarily happens because many women remove their underwear when trying on swimsuits. Why are women so steadfast on ignoring all of the signs pleading with them to keep their underwear on while in the dressing room? There are a few mentalities that lend a hand to the unhygienic practice:
Hard to Picture
The first reason why women take off their underwear in the dressing is that they want to see exactly what they’ll look like when they’re donning the swimsuit in the future. It’s hard to picture what you’ll look like on the white sands of Turks and Caicos in your thong bikini if your old granny panties are sagging underneath it.
Diffusion of Responsibility
The second biggest reason is that women experience a diffusion of responsibility when in the dressing room. You see the sign that asks you to leave your underwear on, and you believe that all other women have followed the sign, therefore, you don’t have to.
You are not novel in this thought; countless other women have had this same thought and have done the exact same thing. This line of thinking leaves you and anyone else who has this belief to become vulnerable (and possibly contribute) to the spread of infections.
The third reason is a deep-seated faith and belief in the sanctity of the hygienic liner. The idea is that this small plastic linter will protect you from the garment, as well as protect the garment from you. It’s a win-win! However, confidence that a liner will protect anyone from anything is completely false. It’d be much more hygienic to offer each woman her own hygienic liner as she enters the dressing room because placing your bare vagina onto something that’s seen other women’s bare vaginas is anything but hygienic.
False Belief of Cleanliness
We found the final reason that women take off their underwear in the dressing room is that they believe they are clean. Many infections may not show any signs or symptoms, so you believe that you won’t pass along any germs. Additionally, you have great faith in your body’s immune system and its ability to fight off any infections it encounters. This mentality is the most arrogant and inconsiderate of all. Just because you may have faith in your body’s immune system doesn’t mean that others’ bodies will be able to do the same. Remember that every body different, and your body won’t be the only body in that swimwear.
So let’s say you heed our warnings and decide to keep your underwear on while trying on swimsuits; that’s great! Now you’re ready to pop off that hygienic liner and hit the pool, right?
Wrong. Just because you’ve survived trying it on doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet. Here are a few more items to take into consideration:
Just because it’s new to you doesn’t mean it’s new. Thinking that you’re the first one to wear anything is a big assumption; who’s to say that this swimwear wasn’t previously purchased and returned? Stores don’t typically have a “No Returns” policy for swimwear or underwear — as long as the tag is included, you’re free to return. Be sure to look up your store’s return policy to know if your new swimwear could be pre-owned.
As stated before, an intact hygienic liner isn’t as hygienic as you might think. Additionally, what organisms lie beneath the liner? According to a study done by Dr. Philip Tierno, Clinical Professor of Microbiology and Pathology at NYU Langone Health, quite a few. After hygienic liners were removed, there was still an astounding amount of bacteria found on the actual lining of the swimsuit. And there are so many other factors to take into account: Does your swimwear even have a hygienic liner? How long has the liner been on there? Who’s to say someone didn’t remove the liner when trying on the swimwear, then replaced it once they finished trying it on? These liners are mainly for show, and they shouldn’t grant you any peace of mind about the cleanliness of your new swimsuit.
Suppose you decide to bypass the dressing room drama and buy from an online retailer; that’s fantastic! Here are some things to keep in mind:
Employees’ hands are something to keep in mind regardless of where you buy anything, but people tend to forget about factory workers handling their garments. Workers use their hands and touch the inside of new swimsuits. Germs can be spread easily, and the hands are the biggest vector for spreading diseases. Through the risk of contracting an STI from someone touching a new garment is low, there are a host of other germs to keep in mind.
Dyes and Materials
Cotton, which is typically woven into Spandex and other swimsuit materials, is sprayed with synthetic pesticides to keep pests at bay. And Spandex itself is made up of thousands of chemicals. Clothes may also be treated with agents and fungicides to keep them looking nice. Additionally, these swimsuits may sit in warehouses for months or even years. In an effort to keep them fresh, they may be sprayed with anti-pesticide, anti-mold, or anti-fungal spray. All of these substances may contribute to an overgrowth of bacteria (causing BV), rashes, or general vaginitis.
Again, who’s to say that this item hasn’t been returned? Just because it’s in a new package, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s new. Maybe the previous owner just tried it on (probably without underwear) and returned it. Or maybe the previous owner wore it out, decided they didn’t like it, then returned it without washing it? The point is you don’t know; be sure that you take the necessary precautions.
There are many risk factors that contribute to your capability to get an infection from a new swimsuit, but prevention is easy!
Keep Your Underwear On
When trying on a swimsuit, the best way to keep yourself free of any spread of diseases is to keep your underwear on. Yes, you’d think with the amount of signage in any given retail store about leaving underwear on, women would heed the warning. But, as you’ve read, the message tends to fall on deaf ears. But just because they don’t listen doesn’t mean you can’t! It’s a simple solution, and it can protect you from becoming host to a wide array of foreign substances.
After you’ve bought your perfect swimwear and before you take it for a spin, let it take its own spin in the washing machine. Just a quick wash will allow you to stay infection free, and it will give you peace of mind after reading this daunting blog post. If it seems too easy to be true, it’s not. Washing your swimsuit in hot water is really effective in killing off any germs that may be lurking in your new garment. For added protection, throw in some color-safe bleach. In addition, wash your hands after handling new swimsuits! There are a lot of diseases you can prevent if you just keep your hands clean!
Don’t Return Dirty Undergarments
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It’s a shame to even have to list this, but if you purchase a swimsuit, wear it, and decide it’s not for you be sure to wash it before returning it, then let the retailer know it was worn. It’s common courtesy, and a way to keep whatever you’ve got to yourself.
Medically Reviewed by J. Frank Martin JR., MD on September 27, 2018
Author: Lauren Crain
Lauren Crain is a writer, designer, and joke-teller. With an academic background from Texas State University in communication and education, Lauren works tirelessly to find the best way to transform hard-to-grasp concepts into straightforward information. She's been a writer her whole life, but she began writing professionally in 2014. In 2018, she joined the STDcheck.com editorial staff because of her passion for communicating information about public health and destigmatizing sexual health. Before becoming a member of the STDcheck.com team, Lauren worked as a communication skills teacher, marketing coordinator, and freelance writer and designer. Her work has been featured on Forbes, The Muse, Insider, Clutch.co, Her Campus, and Business News Daily. When she's not researching, writing, or trying to communicate authentically, you can find her sitting outside.