What lives in a clean crotch?
March 1, 2010 5:53 PM   Subscribe

What microbes and/or mites live in the crotches of clean people?

When I was younger & stupider, I though washing after using the bathroom was silly, but washing *before* might be a good idea because my hands are out in the world touching stuff, but my crotch is safely ensconced after washing.

Then I read somewhere that there are things that live there (presumably harmlessly) that are unpleasant. I know about things like mites that live on sebum and just found out about bacteria that can live in the mites, but those co-exist and live on human faces.

Assuming E. Coli are washed away and natural fungi and bacteria that survive in small numbers and in balance are in that healthy balance (no yeast infection), what harm is there in a male "adjusting" before making a peanut butter sandwich?
posted by morganw to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: things that live there (presumably harmlessly) that are unpleasant

by which I mean, things that aren't irritating/damaging the skin or hair follicles, but are *not* harmless if eaten, rubbed into eyes, shared with another person, etc. I know- ew, but it's for *science* (a.k.a. perverse curiosity).
posted by morganw at 5:56 PM on March 1, 2010

Harm? Well, if I found out you were doing that, you would lose any job that involved making my peanut butter sandwiches.

Previously covered in the blue.
posted by flabdablet at 6:04 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: The numbers and types of microbes living on ANY part of your body is amazing and overwhelming. You are pretty much coated, both inside and out, in bacterial, fungal, and archaeal species.

The Human Microbiome Project is working to categorize this diversity in great detail. (Some of their early findings suggest that the difference between the microbes living on your left arm and right arm is just as great as the difference between microbes living on two different people).

To address your specific points: Are there E. coli on you? Absolutely. They're one of the most common bacterial species. In addition to bing on your skin, there are billions of them living in your gut right now.

Before you freak out, be aware that our bodies live in symbiosis with these creatures for our entire lives, and it's nothing to be concerned about. While there are certain strains of bacteria that can make you sick, the vast majority of our little hitchhikers are benign and just looking for a good meal.

Should you be worried about scratching yourself before fixing a sandwich? Well, washing your hands frequently is a good idea to help prevent the spread of nasty microbes, especially right before activities like eating, picking your nose, or rubbing your eyes - all of which could transfer microbes you've picked up off a door handle to your mucous membranes. This puts you at higher risk of actually contracting an infection if they're harmful.

In the end though, scratching yourself before eating a sandwich ranks very low on the list of things you should be worried about in life.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:07 PM on March 1, 2010 [8 favorites]

Oh, and here's another fun fact:

The number of microbes living in and on your body outnumber your own cells by about an order of magnitude. In that sense, you're nothing more than a walking, talking hostel for the little guys.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:14 PM on March 1, 2010

The number of microbes living in and on your body outnumber your own cells by about an order of magnitude. In that sense, you're nothing more than a walking, talking hostel for the little guys.

The thrust of this comment is true, but the vast majority of these bacteria live in your intestines so I think the implication in the context of this question is a little misleading. Yes, these bacteria are "in and on" your body... but mostly "in".
posted by Justinian at 6:47 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: The numbers and types of microbes living on ANY part of your body is amazing and overwhelming.

This is a great description. "Survive in small numbers" isn't how it works, heh, they're everywhere. The microbiota living all over your body is, in general, pretty innocuous and your immune system has learned to ignore it (something called tolerance) so this isn't a problem exactly. What instead you should be worried about is pathogens, the infectious bacteria and viruses which will make you sick. Keep in mind that your skin and intestines etc are pretty good barriers so there will also be some pathogenic viruses and bacteria mixed in even if they don't make you sick.

So for a start, you should be washing your hands before you prep food or eat regardless of what you've been doing with your crotch. It's very likely that there are pathogens around you transferred to your hands ready to be eaten (specially if you touch the same things as a lot of other people, say money or mail or telephones) and you can pick up anything from a mild case of dysentery to hepatitis. Upper respiratory tract pathogens are a particular problem as people cough them out all over everything, then when they go into your mouth they are absorbed by the mucous membranes and make you sick. Also food prep staff not washing their hands is a major source of food poisoning, so it's not just paranoia. This doesn't mean you need to freak out and wash constantly, but every time you're putting stuff in your mouth would be the minimum.

Then your crotch in particular. Faecal bacteria are real, get spread around more than you'd like to think, and are generally the main reason for advice to wash your hands after using the bathroom. But also just in general your crotch is warm and probably slightly damp, a great place for bugs to grow, and is likely to have a higher bacterial load than, say, a dry piece of arm. So the chances of picking up pathogens from there is somewhat higher, just like it would be picking your nose or rubbing your sweaty armpit. Probably best to wash your hands after any serious crotch action (although being female I don't know how likely it is you'd get your hands right in there and I don't think I want to know), although again don't get too paranoid. I just scratched my sweaty armpit and I'll wash my hands before I eat but happily keep contaminating my keyboard in the meantime.
posted by shelleycat at 7:11 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another key thing to remember: it takes a hell of a lot of casual bacteria to (generally) make you sick. For cholera, it is on the order of 10 million cholera bacteria. This is a lot -- much more than the amount of bacteria (of a single species) that you'd pick up in a bathroom. If the bacteria is living on human skin, it doesn't strictly rely on a pathogenic lifestyle; generally one would need a lot-lot-lot of these bacteria to cause serious illness.
posted by Peter Petridish at 7:34 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

it takes a hell of a lot of casual bacteria to (generally) make you sick.

True but food preparation staff not washing their hands still give their customers food poisoning and hepatitis (not all the time of course, but often enough to matter), so some level of care is still appropriate.
posted by shelleycat at 7:44 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: it takes a hell of a lot of casual bacteria to (generally) make you sick.
Not always true - off the top of my head it only takes about 10 Shigella - a bacteria that causes a particulary unpleasant type of gastric nastiness - to cause disease. That's crazy small.

You're body is usually tolerant of your own bacteria, but its when you start getting the fecal bacteria that have been hanging out on your crotch on other people's sandwiches (or touching their bread, and peanut butter, etc) that there is a problem. You may be immune to these bacteria because you have already gotten sick and recovered from the initial infection - this often happens in childhood, but its unlikely that the people around you have had the exact same disease history as you.

I wouldn't be sure that all of the E. coli and other fecal bacteria have washed away, and that's really what you have to look out for. Please, no one wants to eat your poo bacteria.
posted by fermezporte at 8:39 PM on March 1, 2010

A favorite factoid from 7th grade science: (no citation, sorry)

If your physical were to simply disappear at any given time there would still be an empty "shell" of bacteria and other organisms, thick enough that you could see it with your naked eye.
posted by ropeladder at 9:17 PM on March 1, 2010

With a few specific exceptions, you can never have enough E. coli. If they were all you might be picking up, I'd advise randomly licking things just to keep the diversity high. Unfortunately, they're not and it's everything else you might be picking up, or in this case laying down that's an issue.

If you're off on your own somewhere or using the last bit for yourself, do what you will. In more social environments, where other people are going to be using that same jar, people who almost certainly doesn't want to find a pubic hair in the peanut butter, wash you hands!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:01 PM on March 1, 2010

Not what you meant but even clean people can pick up crab lice.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:31 AM on March 2, 2010

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