As soon as your coworker expels the first deep-in-the-chest cough of the winter, your anti-sick efforts go into turbo drive. You go to class regularly to keep your immune system happy, eat nutritious meals, and do an extra wipe-down of your exercise equipment before using it. But despite your best attempts, it can seem impossible not to succumb to the flu or cold during the winter months.
But is getting a bad case of the flu or a cold this time of year as inevitable as it seems? According to Tricia Holderman, CEO of Elite Facility Systems, which specializes in infection prevention for hospitals and doctor’s offices, we may be unsuspectingly carrying those germs that make us sick everywhere we go in the winter—and in places we would least expect it.
But before you throw out the winter gear item you’ve neglected to wash since winter 2014, take into account these sanitizing cues from Holderman.
Germy Winter Gear #1: Gloves
“The germiest winter gear is gloves, without a doubt,” she says. “They touch every door handle, stair rail, subway pole. Without thinking, you may sneeze and put that glove to your mouth, and then pop a piece of candy in your mouth, or wipe a tear from your eye with a fully contaminated glove, allowing germs from all the yucky touch points to infect you.”
But instead of wearing one pair of gloves throughout the season and occasionally cleaning them, she recommends rotating through several. “When you own several pairs of gloves, you can put on a clean pair regularly while others are being cleaned, or waiting to be,” she explains. “The warmth generated inside the glove is a happy breeding ground for the germs you trapped when putting on your gloves.”
Our tip? While your favorite leather pair is drying, stock up on five or six cheap cotton, machine-washable pairs to get you through the week.
Germy Winter Gear #2: Jackets
Although not quite as germy as gloves, jackets can still breed tons of bacteria if you’re not careful with your cleanings, according to Holderman,
“We usually assume that coughing into our elbows is a best practice for not spreading germs,” she says. “But if we do that, our jackets need to be cleaned much more frequently. Of course, if, like most of us, you can’t afford to have your winter peacoat dry cleaned each week, try disinfectant spray. Just be sure the check the labels so you won’t be spraying on anything damaging.” Cheap, fabric-friendly disinfectant sprays are available at many drugstores.
Germy Winter Gear #3: Lip Balm
When it comes to accumulating nasties, lip balm seems like a prime suspect. But fortunately, they have some of the easiest cleaning methods for avoiding germs. “Every few days, slice off the top of your lip balm,” says Holderman. “And most importantly, do not share!”
Germy Winter Gear #4: Scarves
Aside from lip balm, your chunky knit scarf is likely the closest cold-weather item to your mouth and therefore, not surprisingly, one of the germiest.
“As you are breathing, talking, sneezing and coughing into them, scarves are continuously exposed to germs and are filtering air intake full of pollution,” she says. “Clean them frequently in the wash or with disinfectant spray, and when you are in the office or classroom, don’t bundle them up. Hang them up to dry.”
Germy Winter Gear #5: Hats
Unless you’ve come down with a horrendous case of lice (not likely), your favorite comfy hat or earmuffs is probably the least germy winter gear item of the bunch. Phew! Still, Holderman recommends spritzing with the same disinfectant spray you used for your scarf and jacket to keep the bacteria to a minimum.
Germy Winter Gear #6: Ski goggles
Whether skiing, snowboarding or just sledding, you probably wear some kind of goggles to keep you warm (and help you see through snowstorms!). But if you’re not routinely cleaning your pair, according to Holderman, those goggles could breed all sorts of germs.
“Use glass cleaners frequently,” she says. “Most have an antiseptic base that can be used without damaging the lenses. Additionally, try using a disinfectant wipe to remove germs from all areas except the lenses, and then allow them to air dry.”