FARGO – Flu season is upon us and with it come repeated warnings about the importance of hand-washing.
But there are hidden crevices harboring hundreds of thousands of bacterial colonies that do not get cleaned with a good hand-washing. Those crevices are in the nooks and crannies of our jewelry.
David Bellman of Bellman Jewelers, who invented an at-home jewelry cleaning system called AquaSonic Wave, says dirty jewelry has bacteria levels 10 times higher than skin after hand-washing, but most people go months or even years without cleaning their jewelry.
Several studies have shown that skin under rings is more heavily colonized than on fingers without rings, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Studies also have found that the concentration of microorganisms increases with the number of rings worn and people who wear rings have higher colony counts before and after washing their hands, according to The Joint Commission, an independent, non-profit organization and accredits and certifies U.S. health care organizations and programs.
Some researchers say wearing a single, plain ring does not increase the total bacterial count on hands.
Charlene Wolf-Hall, a North Dakota State University professor and head of the Veterinary and Microbiological Sciences department, helped test various rings and other pieces of jewelry to get a rough estimate of how much bacteria clings to those shiny surfaces.
“Nothing is sterile, especially our skin and our fingers,” she said. “We shouldn’t expect our jewelry to be sterile, no matter how much cleaning we do.”
The women’s wedding rings and mother’s rings we tested, which had the most nooks, crannies and crevices, were by far the “dirtiest.”
They had noticeably more bacterial colonies than the earrings, necklace or watch we tested.
My wedding ring had an estimated bacterial count of 175,000. By comparison, my husband’s ring had a count of 13. He works in health care and rubs his hands (and ring) with antibacterial foam throughout the day. His ring is also a lot smoother than mine and has far fewer crevices.
Wolf-Hall said more research would be needed to determine why his ring had fewer bacteria than mine, but ring designs and the different ways people clean their hands all factor into bacterial counts.
April Pearson of Casselton, a stay-at-home mother of four boys who agreed to let us test her wedding ring, was surprised to find out just how much bacteria was lurking on her ring, especially since she had recently bleached it after caring for a sick child.
“It’s gross,” she said. “You think you get it clean when you wash your hands with soap.”
Katie Steig of rural Casselton, who works as a pharmacist and has two children, also let us test her rings.
“I wash my hands with soap and water a lot, but all of those nooks and crannies are perfect hiding places,” she said.
The women’s wedding rings and mother’s rings all seemed to have similar bacterial counts of roughly 175,000. That’s more than the bacteria counts found on shopping carts, computer keyboards, and money, according to stories in the Chicago News Tribune and on ranker.com.
The material jewelry is made of can also make a difference. Some metals, such as silver and copper, are toxic to bacteria, Wolf-Hall said.
A silver class ring we tested (which was also rather smooth) had only seven bacterial colonies, even though its owner said she never cleans it or takes it off.
A toilet seat had a bacteria count of 1,201, a kitchen countertop had a count of 1,736, and a door knob had a count of 8,643, according to research by Charles Gerba, a professor in the department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona.
The main thing to keep in mind when comparing jewelry to a shopping cart is that bacteria found in public places come from many difference sources, including raw foods and often fecal bacteria, Gerba said. The difference between that and someone’s wedding ring is that “skin is loaded with bacteria, but a shopping cart should not be because the sources are different,” he said.
Neither Pearson, the stay-at-home mother, nor Steig, the pharmacist with two children, said knowing how much bacteria is on their jewelry would likely change how often they cleaned it.
“I’m not a big believer in antibacterial hand gels and things,” Steig said. “I think overuse of antibacterial products actually leads to more sickness because we kill off all of the good bacteria.”
Steig also takes all of her jewelry off when handling sensitive medication, she said.
Food codes limit the jewelry people who prepare food can wear. Local hospitals also have limitations, though different departments have varying guidelines. At Sanford Health, for example, operating room regulations require all jewelry to be removed. In general patient care areas, Essentia Health allows one ring per hand.
Wolf-Hall says it’s a good idea to periodically clean your jewelry, especially if you work with food or if your jewelry will be in direct contact with people who are immunocompromised such as small children, the elderly, pregnant women or people who are sick.
Still, the numbers of bacteria found on jewelry is nothing to fret over, she said.
“Very little in our world is sterile. There are microorganisms everywhere and we just live with it and that’s normal and natural and nothing to be afraid of. When it comes to the spread of disease, it’s about controlling risk level,” she said. “We have a lot of normal bacteria on our skin, so we’re not sterile by any means and a lot of those bacteria actually contribute to the health of our skin.”