Can Hair Ties, Watches, Rubber Bands Cause Skin Infections on Wrists?

The facts about skin infections and what to avoid and look for

Kids making rubber band Rainbow Loom bracelets
Make sure what goes on your child's wrist isn't too tight and is kept clean. Dean Mitchell/Getty Images

Every once in a while, there's a scary story about a rare infection caused by something so common that many of us would never think of it as dangerous. Case in point: a story about a woman who contracted a life-threatening skin infection from a hair tie that made headlines in November, 2015. The Louisville, Kentucky woman reportedly developed a serious skin infection on her wrist that didn't respond to antibiotics and required surgery.

Her doctors told her that the likely cause was a glittery hair tie that she habitually wore around her wrist.

Countless women and girls (and men and boys with long hair) use hair ties, and many--myself included--often put the hair band around the wrist to avoid losing it while doing something. The problem, however, is that we are often in an environment where things aren't always cleaned--say a gym, where many women put hair ties around the wrist and then put up their hair to work out--and bacteria can get into the skin and cause an infection. "The gym is one of the dirtiest areas there is," says Cameron Rokhsar, MD, FAAD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "It's crowded, the same equipment is used by lots of people over and over again and not really cleaned, and it's easy to pick up an infection. Staph or strep are the most common."

While skin infections from hair ties are not a super-common problem, doctors say it's definitely a good idea to remember what's going on your wrist or on any part of your body that may not be clean and rubs on your skin. You wash your clothes often (after all, you wouldn't wear the same pair of shorts over and over again without washing), but most people don't think to wash hair ties.

(This is something I'm personally gonna start doing ASAP, and I'm also gonna stop putting hair ties around my wrist!)

And for parents, the big question in our minds is, is it safe for kids to wear rubber band bracelets or watches or friendship bracelets, or, yes, hair ties around their wrists? The answer is yes, as long as what's around their wrist isn't too tight and affecting their circulation, and it's cleaned regularly. Some things to keep in mind to avoid the possibility of skin infections:

  • Wash, wash, wash. Whether it's a hair tie or a watch or a rubber band bracelet, wash with soap and water (or swipe with a bit of alcohol) what goes on your skin, especially if it's something that's going to rub against your skin. Regularly replace hair ties.
  • Your skin doesn't need to be visibly broken. Don't see a scratch? It doesn't mean you don't have microscopic abrasion that allows germs to enter.
  • Avoid repeatedly exposing your skin to something that is abrasive. Glittery hair ties around the wrist are more abrasive than smooth ones, although both can harbor germs and cause infection.
  • Watch for signs of a skin infection. Most skin infections start out with a red area. It may become tender and a pustule may form. The classic signs of a skin infection are pain, redness, and swelling or tenderness, says Dr. Rokhsar. If you see these signs, see your doctor right away.
  • Avoid letting your child wear anything on her wrist that may restrict circulation. And don't keep hair ties or other tight items around your wrist for a prolonged period of time.
  • It's not just about hair ties on the wrist. Anything that repeatedly goes on your skin without being washed could potentially cause an infection. So make sure your child brings home those PE clothes to be washed!!

While this story may be about a rare infection that occurred, it's a great reminder to play it safe and regularly clean or throw out things that touch our skin, even something as seeming innocuous as a hair tie.

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