House and Home

How Gross Is Your Jewelry?

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Be honest: When was the last time you cleaned your jewelry? Was it sometime in the past week? The past month? Or have you been wearing that same crusty wedding band on your ring finger since the Reagan administration?

You sicko, you.

Disinfecting our jewelry is not something we think about all that regularly, but when we do, we usually suspect we're not doing it as often as we should. And doctors tend to agree.

"I'm very much aware that a lot of the rings people wear are dirty or contaminated with bacteria," says Dr. Robert Lahita, the chairman of medicine and vice president of the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. "Dirt and skin and oil accumulate, and when you wash with soap and water, it doesn’t get all that off."

According to Lahita, everything from food to fecal matter can come into contact with your jewelry, making it even riskier to refrain from regular cleaning. "It can be a major concern," he says.

For the most part, however, much of the bacteria on our jewelry originates from the skin itself. "You have millions of organisms per square centimeter on your skin," explains Dr. Phillis Della-Latta, a professor of clinical pathology and the director of clinical microbiology at the Columbia University Medical Center. Of these millions, Della-Latta says there are resident flora (that reproduce) and transient flora (which do not), the latter of which live on the outermost layer, or stratum corneum, of the skin.

On top of this, your skin is constantly shedding epithelial cells. "They look like rafts," says Della-Latta, "and they can carry hundreds of thousands of potentially harmful microorganisms."

If enough of these epithelial cells and flora gather in the same warm, moist places where soap, sweat or water gets trapped near your skin — like the underside of wedding bands or inside earrings — a biofilm will develop. "This can be [harmful] because it can protect microorganisms [and give them] a nice little niche for them to stay," she adds. "And some of [those organisms] can be pathogenic."

Keeping pathogenic (or infectious) organisms so close to the skin won't necessarily lead to infection, but the chances are obviously much greater. "They can be really harmful when you have a break in the skin, and the jewelry is right there as a source of the contamination," explains Lahita. "You've got the potential for infection and rashes … especially if you're on immunosuppressive drugs," which can hinder the effectiveness of the immune system, he says.

According to Della-Latta, the most common areas for jewelry-assisted infection are anywhere on either end of the gastro-intestinal tract. "The areas that are the most easily infected, or the nastiest infections, would be those in the mouth, I would say. The piercings in the tongue, the lips, also the genitals — those are the ones I come across most."

"There’s a lot of fluid [and] mucosal surfaces, a lot of glandular excretions," Lahita says of the body's more vulnerable areas. "The penile rings, the nipple rings, the bellybutton rings — that accumulates bacteria. If somebody, daily, removes their nipple rings or their bellybutton rings [and causes forcible rips in the skin] … they can introduce germs," he says, pointing to the bacterium that cause tetanus and Staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA) as a few of the worst.

Needless to say, both Drs. Lahita and Della-Latta advocate keeping your body jewelry clean.

"Anything you hang on yourself should be sonicated [with an ultrasonic cleaner], or cleaned and disinfected about once a week," suggests Dr. Lahita. "And washing your hands does not elimate germs and bacteria from your jewelry. With rings that are complex, with nooks and crannies, it’s best to go in with a brush."

"At home, you just have to use some common sense," adds Della-Latta. "Take your jewelry off, maybe use a little ammonia, a little water. But always be careful what you use," she warns, so as not to damage anything delicate. (Reader's Digest and EHow have helpful instructions for cleaning different stones and metals).

In addition to cleaning the jewelry itself, it's important regularly cleanse to the skin underneath rings, bracelets, watches, and the like. "Pay particular attention to the area of the [jewelry]," advises Lahita. "A lot of [the buildup] is natural — we shed skin all day long, we bleed, we have mucuous — but you can't know for certain what's on the underside."

And that's especially true if you really haven't cleaned under your rings since the Reagan administration, in which case you're likely to find bacteria, dirt, and the festering residue from an Orange Julius you purchased at the Paramus Mall in 1987. 

You sicko, you.