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Not feeling well? Your watch might be to blame

News 6 teams up with Rollins College biology department to test various watches for bacterial levels

WINTER PARK, Fla. – Whether it’s a tech gadget or just a timeless time piece you wear every day, we know some of you wear your watches everywhere to keep track of time and other important information, but your watch might be holding onto more than you want it to.

Have you ever wondered just how dirty your watch gets with that nonstop wear? And whether the kind of band you choose can make a difference?

We did, too.

The test

News 6 teamed up with the biology department at Rollins College in Winter Park to test 14 different watches for several kinds of bacteria -- both the good kind that live on your skin all the time and the bad kind that can get you sick.

“So bacteria are pretty much everywhere and that is something people don’t really think about,” said Dr. Brenda Santiago-Narvaez, an assistant biology professor at Rollins College. “I don’t like when people are afraid of microbes, because microbes can actually be good and they do a lot of good things. But it’s just a matter of hygiene.”

Rollins College biology students testing swabs for bacteria.
Rollins College biology students testing swabs for bacteria.

Santiago-Narvaez provided News 6 with all the tools needed to collect an accurate sample, including gloves, sterile cotton swabs, test tubes and sterile solution to help lift any bacteria off the dry watchbands and back of the watch face. She also created six different tests using different mediums to test for different bacteria.

“We can get lots of information from these sorts of tests,” Santiago-Narvaez said. “So if there is growth there, you will definitely be able to see it.”

News 6 collected samples from smartwatches with silicone bands, smartwatches with magnetic mesh bands, watches with leather bands and timepieces with silver and gold bands. All kinds of watches were tested, from smartwatches worn by people in the gym to wrist watches worn by people cruising around campus. Even watches worn by News 6 employees were tested.

The results

Of all the watches collected at both the college and in the newsroom, all 14 showed some trace of bacteria.

The watch with the least bacterial buildup was the silver and gold wristwatch, even though the owner admitted he hardly cleans it and wears it when he exercises, does yard work.

The one with the highest bacterial count was a smartwatch with a silicone band -- and it wasn’t even one of the ones tested that’s used in the gym.

Bacteria found on watches.
Bacteria found on watches.

Santiago-Narvaez said one of the smartwatches even had confirmed E. coli bacteria growing on it, and eight others had coli-form bacteria. She said both are kinds that could make someone sick.

“It’s kind of like Velcro,” Santiago-Narvaez said. “If the surface has the right properties, microorganisms will attach to them.”

She confirmed a total of 11 of the watches had some form of staphylococcus bacteria, but said that’s not unusual since that kind of bacteria is normally found on your skin.

Santiago-Narvaez said most of the time, staph doesn’t cause any problems but that it can lead to a minor skin infection.

The results show that while your slick-looking silicone or plastic band may be comfortable, it can also be a magnet for germs.

To see exactly what kind of bacteria was found on each watch, review the data at the bottom of the story.

“The plastic materials -- silicone, rubber materials -- probably collect more microbes than those made out of metal just because of the texture,” Santiago-Narvaez said. “But silver has antimicrobial properties, so perhaps watches that are made out of these materials will have less bacteria on them.”

Tips to stay healthy

How can you prevent your smartwatch from becoming a breeding ground for bacteria?

Santiago-Narvaez said it’s simple: Wash your hands -- and your watch -- with simple soap and water at least once a week.

“Good ole plain soap is just enough to keep things clean,” Santiago-Narvaez said. “You don’t need an antibacterial. You won’t need any extra things. Just the mechanical action of washing something with soap and water is more than enough.”

She said researchers are currently trying to create an antibacterial synthetic material that will repel bacteria, or at least keep them from sticking like Velcro, for use in future surgical procedures.

Until then, her best advice is to wash your watch bands at least once a week and wash your hands every chance you get.

See full findings below.