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Pre-Owned Swimsuit Hygiene

Hi Alice,

I've seen used swimsuits on Ebay and in thrift stores. I've also heard that buying used is a great way to save money and prevent waste. I'm not sure if a wearing someone else's swimsuit is a good idea, even if I were to I wash it in hot, soapy water. Is it hygienic to buy used swimsuits? 

Best, Beach Bum

Dear Beach Bum, 

Your efforts to save money and reduce waste are commendable! In addition to usually being less expensive, buying from thrift shops and secondhand sellers online means that less energy and resources are needed to produce new clothing. That being said, hygiene is something to consider when using any items that others have worn before. Bodily fluids such as sweat, saliva, vaginal discharge, semen, and secretions from wounds can harbor bacteria, viruses, and parasites. If these microorganisms get on someone’s clothes and aren’t properly cleaned, they can be transmitted to other people if they wear the same clothing. Studies have found various bacteria and fungi on secondhand bras, briefs, and panties. However, this risk isn’t limited to thrift store items; even new clothes can carry microorganisms if other customers have tried them on or touched them while shopping prior to you purchasing them. The good news, though, is that if you machine-wash your used bathing suits with soap and dry them with heat before you wear them, they will be more sanitary and ready to bring to your next beach trip! 

The main concern when it comes to sharing or buying second-hand bathing suits in particular is parasites. A parasite is an organism that survives by causing harm to another organism—often by feeding off its body in some way. Here are some of the most common parasites found in bathing suits: 

  • Pubic lice are small, tan or grayish white insects that feed on human blood. Though they’re most commonly spread through physical contact or sexual intercourse, you can also contract pubic lice if you share towels, bedding, or clothing with someone who has them. These lice die within 72 hours of being detached from the skin, but you may still find them on swimsuit bottoms and trunks. 
  • Mites are small arachnids that burrow under the skin and lay eggs. They are often found around the chest, genitals, groin, and buttocks. People who come into contact with live mites, their waste, or their eggs may have an allergic reaction and develop scabies—an itchy, contagious rash. While scabies is commonly spread through skin-to-skin contact, it can also be contracted through shared bedding or clothing. 
  • Pinworms are intestinal worms that can cause discomfort and itching around the anus and buttocks when they lay eggs. Though studies have found that they’re most prevalent in menswear, they can be found in any type of swimsuit. 
  • Bed bugs are small insects that are mostly active at night. While some people have no reaction to their bites, others can develop itchy welts. Since bed bugs are so small, it can be difficult to discover an infestation, meaning that people might unknowingly donate or purchase affected clothing. 

In addition to parasites, unwashed used clothing may also be home to microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Transmission varies depending on what kind of germs are involved. For example, viruses that cause sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can only be transferred through direct person-to-person contact, meaning that catching an STI from secondhand clothes isn’t a risk. However, clothing in thrift stores could have bacteria such as Staphylococcus which might lead you to develop a staph infection. Rhizopus is a fungi that may also be found on clothes and might cause infections like mucormycosis

Thankfully, parasites and other unwanted clothing dwellers can all be killed by washing clothing in hot water with soap and then drying them on the highest heat setting. Another method to killing parasites specifically is to starve them by placing affected clothes in a sealed plastic bag for anywhere between one and two weeks. 

The tricky part about sanitizing swimwear is that machine washing and drying with heat are generally not recommended as they may damage the fabric and elastic in the swimsuit. However, following this method is likely the most effective way of killing off potential microorganisms. Some experts suggest putting your swimwear in mesh laundry bags to prevent tangling and protect the fabric during wash cycles. Rinsing bathing suits before and after swimming also works to prevent the build-up of microorganisms. 

There are also some steps you can take when thrift shopping to ensure that you’re being as hygienic as possible. Asking about the store’s sanitation and bug inspection policies is always better than making assumptions. Since each thrift store is different, clarification is key. It may also be a good idea to examine clothing yourself before buying it. Turning items inside out and checking for any visible parasites may reduce the chance of transmission. When possible, try to also buy gently used clothes, as they may have fewer microorganisms than more heavily used items. If you follow these tips and make sure to wash any secondhand clothing before use, it’s likely that you can continue to protect the environment (and your wallet) while staying safe from infection! 

Wishing you a germ-free swim season, 

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Last updated Jun 23, 2023
Originally published Jun 23, 2023