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By now, we should all be experts at washing our hands to reduce the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus: you know, scrubbing for at least two rounds of Happy Birthday, getting between the fingers and under the nails and so on. But it’s possible that we’re not being quite as careful when it comes to our jewelry.
One of the reasons health-care workers don’t wear rings or bracelets in sanitized environments is because germs can get onto them. Although there’s no research pertaining to whether the virus that causes COVID-19 could potentially stay stuck on hand jewelry, it’s worth considering.
“There actually is a risk for microbes to lurk under jewelry” says Dr. Harvey Lui, professor of dermatology and skin science at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine and Vancouver General Hospital. “The minute you occlude, meaning cover, the skin, any moisture doesn’t have a way of drying. So anytime you have a piece of jewelry on your skin, a tight bracelet or a ring, you’re going to trap moisture.”
That moisture can lead to maceration, where the surface of the skin turns slightly white, and microscopic cracks can occur. Rings are worn in areas where dirt and debris can collect.
“And where there’s dirt and debris, there’s microbes,” Lui says. “So, you’ve got microbes and macerated skin and occlusion, and that is the perfect kind of microenvironment for bugs to get into the skin and cause infection.”
The most common type of microbe to get into the skin in that kind of situation would be fungus, Lui says, which could lead to yeast infections.
Among the various viruses that could get into the skin in such a scenario, the most common would be those that cause warts, or HPV.
Lui says he doesn’t think the wearing of a ring or bracelet in and of itself increases the risk of COVID-19, unless it makes you wash your hands less frequently, thoroughly, or effectively.
“Then incidentally, if you have COVID on your hands, you might transfer it to your face or eyes or nose or mouth if you touch yourself,” he says.
What Lui is seeing related to the COVID-19 pandemic is an increase in hand dermatitis. So much hand washing can cause skin irritation. In effect, the very practice that’s protecting us from the virus could also be wearing our skin down.
“Hand washing with soap and water works because it dissolves the envelope of the virus, which contains lipids,” Lui says. “Once the envelope is gone, the virus particle is inactivated. However, the surface of the skin contains lipids as well, so hand washing dissolves some of our natural lipids.
“When you use soap and water to destroy the lipid membrane of the envelope viruses, you’re also destroying the lipid barrier of the surface of your skin and that means you can be more prone to getting irritation, eczema, dermatitis. The way it works is the way it’s damaging your skin.
ALSO SEE: How to clean and sanitize your jewelry
“That why after you wash with soap and water and you’ve deactivated all those virus particles and they’re rinsed down the sink so they don’t infect you, and you’ve washed away some of your natural lipids, or oils, you’ve got to restore it by applying hand moisturizer,” he says. “You repair your barrier after all that cleansing.”
Some people may choose to take a break from wearing jewelry altogether due to COVID-19 to minimize irritation and the risk of developing cracks in the skin that germs could get into.
If you are wearing jewelry, you’ll want to pay extra attention to how you’re cleaning and caring for it.
“Cleaning is very important,” says Selina Ladak, managing director of Stittgen Fine Jewelry in West Vancouver. “If you’re doing this at home, what we recommend is a capful of dishwashing soap with half a cup of water and a gentle toothbrush to work around the stones and under the ring, and not to brush too harshly. One should not do this over a sink; it should be over a bowl or on a countertop in case your stones fall out.
“Sometimes we’ve seen it’s the dirt holding the stone in,” she says. “That happens when people haven’t had their claws checked for years—the prongs that hold the stone in.”
Ladak notes that emeralds and pearls should never be put into any kind of solution, which are too abrasive for these two soft stones; avoid bristles with these, too. Let a pro handle them or simply use a gentle, damp cloth.
“You’d be surprised how many rings we see with people’s baking underneath; we’ve actually seen meat inside a ring,” Ladak says. “These are all causes that can cause reactions or irritations on the skin if not dealt with in a timely manner. One of the tell-tale signs [of irritation] is redness underneath your ring. If you start seeing that, it’s high time your ring is cleaned.”
Pieces made of mixed gold could leave black marks on the skin, another sign it’s time for a cleaning.
“We recommend jewelry to be cleaned at least once a month if you’re wearing it every day, or once every six months if it’s worn on occasion,” Ladak says. “Have jewelry regularly inspected, especially diamond rings or bracelets you wear regularly, to ensure the claws that hold stones are secure.”
Some people feel most comfortable removing their jewelry when washing their hands (just don’t do it over a sink with an open drain), says Vancouver jewelry designer Leah Belford of Leah Alexander.
In addition to advising using mild soapy water for diamonds and 14K gold, Belford recommends removing gold vermeil before exercising or showering.
“Clean your piece by buffing gently with a dry cloth and store it in your pouch,” Belford says. “If you must, dip a cloth in warm water mixed with mild soap and buff, ensuring no moisture is left on the surface. Sterling silver is also water-sensitive, so no long baths for these jewel.”
Follow the instructions for cleaning gold vermeil and you’re good to go.
“And if you’re too concerned about dulling or damaging your rings and bracelets by cleaning and sanitizing frequently, we suggest taking this time to step up your ear game and layering your necklaces so you can put on some shine with peace of mind,” she adds.