This article originally appeared on VICE US
Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this column to answer those most embarrassing of queries.
The scenario: Your friend comes home from a long day of doing whatever your friend does—handling uncooked meat, working in the coal mines, or dealing with children. Friend sees Bae sitting on the couch, and is immediately overcome with passion. Like the awkward elevator scene from the 50 Shades of Grey sequel, your friend decides to pleasure Bae with only fingers. In the throes of passion, your friend forgot about how disgusting his/her hands are. Maybe your friend lives in New York City and now, thanks to a mix of selfishness and carelessness, there are subway germs now multiplying in Bae's vagina. Good job, friend.
The issue: Look, we're not here to judge, but it's no secret that hands are absolutely filthy. Researchers from the University of Colorado conducted a study to examine the amount of bacteria on human hands. After swabbing the palms of 51 healthy volunteer participants, they discovered that the average hand has 4,752 unique bacteria coming from over 150 different species. When we see data like this, it's obvious why we're taught that hand-washing can significantly diminish the transfer of sickness (because it does).
Your germy-fingered friend is in good company: About 17 percent of people don't wash their hands after using public toilets. Even more people wash incorrectly: It's recommended that hand washing should last between 20-30 seconds (the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday), but the average person only spends about 11 seconds on the task. In a recent Women's Health article, Vanessa Cullins, OB/GYN and vice president for external medical affairs at Planned Parenthood said, "When you think about the commonality of fingering, it's sort of remarkable that we don't have more infections and problems with women's vaginas [caused by it]."
The worst that could happen: It's really dependent on where your hands were prior to being inside of your partner. Ronald D. Blatt, gynecologist and medical director of The Manhattan Center for Gynecology and The Manhattan Center for Vaginal Surgery, says that while everyday germs aren't really cause for concern, working in dirt and soil without washing your hands could theoretically lead to transferring a fungal infection. Blatt adds, "If your nails are a little long, you could create a tear in the vaginal mucosa which lines the vagina, and [your partner] could get an infection that way. [Your partner] could get a bacterial infection called staph and could, theoretically, get an anaerobic infection" [in which naturally occurring bacteria in the vagina grow out of control as a result of a disruption of the vaginal environment].
Staph infections include symptoms like chills, fever, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramping and, if left untreated, death. Colleen Krajewski, gynecologist and professor at University of Pittsburgh, is careful to mention that there is no evidence-based answer to the question of what could happen to Bae if diddled by friend with dirty hands, but she warns that if your "friend" is partaking in a threesome and is letting hands wander between partners, "there is a theoretical risk of transmissions of STIs…if [one of your partners] has a vaginal infection or an STI like Herpes, HPV, or anything like that. [Something like that] would be transmissible."
What will probably happen: Probably nothing. The good news is that the vagina is self-cleaning. In addition to having good bacteria called lactobacilli which help keep the vagina acidic enough to fight foreign impurities, the vaginal canal has lots of blood vessels and produces mucus that both protects against and washes away harmful microbes, explains an article in Environmental Health Perspectives. While introducing germs and microorganisms into a vagina can throw off pH levels, a healthy vagina is uniquely poised to seek and destroy the foreign bodies it encounters.
What to do: While it's considerate to wash hands before digital penetration, the risk of infection is fairly low. In short: Your homie can relax. Krajewski and Blatt both mention that if you've done something "dirtier" than normal—gardening, working on your car, caressing the walls and floors of a hospital—then it's good practice to wash your hands. On the off chance that your friend's partner does develop an infection, your friend should encourage Bae to see a doctor, but to let go of any guilt. Chances are dirty fingers aren't the culprit.