June 9, 2010— -- 3D movie glasses make you feel like you can reach out and touch the action, but you may be making contact of a different kind when you wear them -- with the germs of those who wore or handled the glasses before you.
Though most cinemas say the glasses are cleaned in between uses, Good Housekeeping tested glasses at seven theaters in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area and found that not one of them was sterile.
"We're always looking for things that might be of interest to our readers," says Carolyn Forte, director of home appliances and cleaning products at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute. "Given the popularity of 3D movies like 'Avatar,' we thought this was something we should look into."
Requests for comment on this issue were not immediately returned by the National Association of Theater Owners.
The Good Housekeeping Research Institute tested seven pairs of movie theater 3D glasses, both wrapped in plastic and unwrapped, and found a number of germs, including those causing conjunctivitis, skin infections, food poisoning, sepsis and pneumonia.
One was even contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus, the most common cause of staph infections.
Magazine staff was "shocked" by these results, Good Housekeeping editor-in-chief Rosemary Ellis said in a press release.
"We expected to find general bacteria -- nothing is sterile, but staph is not something to take lightly," Forte says.
"We're not saying that these glasses will make you sick, but kids touch the glasses, touch their eyes and mouths -- the potential is there," she adds.
But are these findings actually cause for alarm, or just more fodder for germophobes?
ABCNews.com put the question to germ experts.
Germy Glasses, Grubby Seats -- What's a Movie-Goer to Do?
Though doctors agree that staph infections are nothing to mess around with, they were not overly concerned by the germs found on 3D glasses, even the Staphylococcus aureus.
"We do not live in a sterile environment," says Dr. William Schaffner, professor and chair of the department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
"We could culture many features of our inanimate environment and find entirely similar results," he adds.
While potentially dangerous, Staph is "ubiquitous in the environment" and would be found in many non-sterile surfaces, says Dr. Christopher Ohl, associate professor of medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Its presence doesn't necessarily lead to infection.
Dr. Harley Rotbart, professor of microbiology in the department of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Colorado School of Medicine, echoed this view:
"If you swab the popcorn box, arm rests on the seats, door handles leading into the theater and the coinage you get in change at the concession stand, you'll find the same distribution of germs," he says. "Until there is a proven 'outbreak' related to these glasses, these are only theoretical concerns."
One added germ risk of glasses is that they come in close proximity to the eyes, nose and mouth, Rotbart says, but still the chances of infection "are slim."
Dr. Justin Bazan, a Brooklyn-based optometrist, notes that no eye infections attributable to 3D glasses have come into his practice and he says it is of "low concern" at his office.
Overall, doctors said they felt the study overstated the risk involved in wearing these glasses.
Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands
While the risk is low, it may be worthwhile to clean the glasses yourself if you are concerned about germs or if you have a weakened immune system to begin with, says Dr. Clifford Bassett, medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York.
"I would be more comfortable with a system in place for 'sanitizing' these glasses, especially during peak times such as during the upcoming fall flu season," he says.
Rotbart suggests having a dispenser box of disinfectant wipes nearby the glasses pick-up to give move-goers the opportunity to sanitize their pair.
Short of such amenities, how can you be a good sanitarian, even if the theater you frequent isn't?
The report found that alcohol wipes, like those found at your corner drugstore, reduced germ content by 95 percent. Washing with soap was almost as effective, though just wiping them off with a tissue only got rid of 66 percent of germs
Using hand sanitizer, soap or alcohol wipes are the best way to ensure that those specs are spic and span, doctors say, and you may want to clean your hands as well after using them.
But if you don't have wipes or hand sanitizer, it's not the end of the world, doctors note.
"At some point you have to trust our body's immune systems and defenses," Ohl says.