In my early twenties, I lived alone in a dark, dank garden apartment in the heart of Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. I was convinced a long-ago tenant died in it and still haunted the place; why else would the rent be so cheap? And if that were the case, the ghost spying on me surely saw some just awful stuff go down.
Besides an unhealthy amount of pooping and a suspect amount of baths, I think my most disgusting habit was forgoing towels and, instead, wiping my hands on whatever cloth was most available. Whether I needed to dry my hands or wipe food gunk off them, I looked to my sleeves, pants — both the lap and front — occasionally the couch skirt, and (in desperate times) the carpet.
Eventually I landed on the lower legs of my jeans or ankle area of my socks. These areas don’t immediately showcase a weird orange stain, and, you know, they’ll get washed eventually.
I’m not alone in spending my lost years wiping unspeakable things on everything near and dear to me. I know you do it too. You might even be one of the guys who go on Reddit to ask if they’re “normal” depending on their hand-wiping area of choice.
For example, in the subreddit r/DoesAnybodyElse, user LoverOfTheLight admits to wiping their hands on their shoulder after eating chips:
One redditor responds that “the side of either leg is much more inconspicuous,” while another, u/pinkpools, prefers wiping toast crumbs on an undershirt.
In another thread, one redditor admits to wiping his mouth on the inside of his shirt when he’s alone, and that “swiftly brushing your hands on your pants thighs” doesn’t cause too much attention in public:
To this, redditor cRavenx responds that the socks make for a much better paper towel stand-in. “No, you gotta use your sock,” he writes. “Your [sic] just going to wash those anyway, plus no one looks at your socks.” (Editor’s note: Crap. I just realized I’m a sock wiper too. They go straight into the hamper, and they’re already covered in foot.)
And while I could argue it’s ecological not to waste paper towels, it’s a disgusting and especially germ-spreading habit, according to microbiologist and germ-expert Dr. Dave Westenberg.
The Germs You Spread
Even Dr. Westenberg admits to occasionally drying his hands on his pants after washing, since “the paper towel dispensers seem to be empty half the time.” But this type of hand-wiping is different than wiping food or dirt particles on your clothes.
Westenberg explains that it’s always a good idea to minimize exposure to the “scary, disease-causing microbes,” but these are rare. “From a microbiology perspective, the vast majority of the microbes we encounter on a daily basis are harmless and, more often than not, beneficial,” he tells me. “If you are a healthy person with an active immune system and a healthy microbiome, coming into contact with the microbes that we carry on our hands and clothes are not likely to harm us in any way.”
In other words, as long as you’re doing a healthy amount of hand-washing, occasionally drying your hands on your clothes is fine. That said, wiping food or other surface particles onto your clothes is another story.
“Wiping our hands on an item of clothing is going to remove surface particles, but it is not going to get your hands clean so it is not really a good habit,” Westenberg says, adding that the biggest concern is what happens to those particles sitting in your clothes.
“Those items of clothing are now accumulating food, soil, oils, moisture, etc. that would make a prime breeding ground for microbes … [and will] likely stay there until those clothes get washed or the particles get transferred to another object.
“So,” he says, “let’s think about how microbes get transferred.”
Like burrs sticking to wild animals, the chips you wiped on the back of your pants will spread anywhere else you sit, and combine with whatever gross food you wiped on those areas. And the same goes for all the filthy, germ-covered friends you have over.
“The next person to come in contact with that object will pick up some of those microbes but also leave behind some of their own microbes. So the more an object is touched, the more microbes it will have.”
Westenberg says the term for objects that become microbe-dumpsters are “fomites.” Microbes don’t necessary “live” on fomites, he explains, but they lie in wait for something else to pick them up, or a source of food to come along.
“So if we think of clothing as a fomite, they are picking up microbes from every surface we come in contact with as well as the microbes from our bodies. As with any inanimate object, those microbes are just hanging out but you can imagine if you provide those microbes with food and moisture they can start growing and create problems.”
Westenberg also says that if you’re handling potential sources of harmful organisms, like sick animals or waste, wiping your hands on your clothes is obviously a bad idea. “You run the risk of transferring microbes to your clothing and then carrying them around with you until those clothes get washed,” he says.
“Even casual contact with such surfaces can be a problem,” and studies have shown health care workers can carry “potentially harmful microbes around on objects of clothing such as a lab coat or tie… after interacting with patients.”
To quickly recap, wiping off your hands on clothing doesn’t actually clean them, at least from a microbiology perspective. You’re just creating a breeding ground for microbes on your T-shirt.
Now, so long as you routinely wash your clothes, Dr. Westenberg says you should be fine. A good soapy run in the washing machine will clear all your socks, shirts, undershirts, pants and shorts of the disgusting, growing organism orgy you’ve created by wiping chip dust all over them.
The Worst Place to Wipe Your Hands
This, then, brings us to the couch. “Wiping your hands on a couch would be the worst habit, because that is an item we rarely clean. When we do clean it, we are not likely to use any type of cleaner or disinfectant,” Westenberg tells me.
Not only is your couch just accumulating and breeding microbes, but it’s one of the main areas in your house other people touch — so now other people are adding their own microbes and picking up yours.
“In a similar vein, wiping your hands on the back of your pants probably creates the next biggest risk for transferring microbes to other surfaces because you are likely to sit down on other objects and transfer your microbes to those surfaces,” Westenberg adds.
“So wiping off your hands on the front of your pants or on a shirt sleeve would be the lowest risk of transferring to other locations, and though I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone wipe their hands on their socks, that is probably also a low risk of transmitting microbes to others as well.”
The last thing to consider is the type of fabric that’s collecting your disgusting hand grime. “Does the cloth have a smooth or rough texture? How tight is the weave? All of those factors play a role in any potential risks of transferring microbes,” Westenberg says. Your grandma’s couch wrapped in plastic is easily disinfected. Her shag carpet, however, is not.
“In general, wiping your hands on clothing or furniture is probably not a big risk factor for the spread of disease causing microbes unless we have come in contact with a potential source of disease causing microbes,” Westenberg concludes. “The main issue is just general cleanliness. Wiping your hands on those objects is going to get them filthy and impact how they look and eventually smell. It is not really a good look do be doing that.”
In other words, just use a paper towel or napkin you regularly wash, so your rotten pizza-sauce microbes don’t get all over everyone who sits on your couch.