Wearing ‘outside clothes’ inside or on the bed? Unthinkable for some

For a certain contingent, ‘outside clothes’ must immediately be swapped for ‘inside clothes’ upon walking through the door

Illustration of a woman changing her clothes as she gets home from work.
(Subin Yang For The Washington Post)

A majority of Americans take off their shoes when they enter their homes. But for some, the switch from sneakers to slippers isn’t the only necessary modification upon crossing the threshold — these folks require a full-blown costume change, from so-called “outside clothes” to inside attire.

“When I get home, I immediately change. I don’t sit on anything — my couch, my bed, my anything,” says Phoebe Robinson, a stand-up comedian and best-selling author, including, fittingly, of a book called “Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes.”

For Robinson, who lives in New York City, it’s about keeping her space clean. “I love New York; it’s a wonderland,” she says. “But it’s also very filthy and there’s just no getting around it.” The idea of carrying that grime into her apartment via the day’s outfit just isn’t palatable to her.

Among the untold number of subscribers to the outside clothes/inside clothes creed, cleanliness seems to be the top reason for the wardrobe change. But other factors such as comfort and even safety come into play, too. Many inherited the habit from their parents, though some point to the pandemic, or becoming parents themselves as their motivation.

Robinson is among those whose mom and dad influenced her outside clothes habit, because they “liked a very clean house.” She explains that it’s not as though she has two separate wardrobes, kept in separate drawers. Instead, when she walks out the door, whatever outfit she’s wearing earns the outside designation. Once it goes through the laundry, it can again become suitable for indoor use.

This, of course, leads to some key questions — like, what, exactly, is getting onto our clothes out there in the big wide world? And is it actually harmful to bring back home with us?

Graham Snyder, the medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has some good news and some bad news.

First, the bad: If you’re someone who gets the ick from the idea of germs, they’re everywhere and essentially impossible to dodge. “If you just wash your bed linens and put them on the bed, surprise, that’s not sterile,” Snyder says. “If the idea is, I want to avoid any organisms at all, that’s not going to happen. It’s a matter of what are the organisms that can cause you harm and how do you keep them away?”

Now for the good news: While there have been infections traced back to textiles, Snyder says that route of transmission is uncommon. (These cases generally involve people sharing especially dirty textiles that haven’t been properly laundered, such as towels in a locker room.) Though it’s certainly possible for something harmful, such as lice or scabies mites, to cling to your outfit, for the most part, the germs on your clothes aren’t dangerous. Snyder says washing your hands when you return home is a far more effective infection-prevention strategy.

Even so, he admits that he isn’t thrilled about the idea of wearing street clothes inside, either. “My rational brain says that the differential probability that I’m going to get sick from something if I don’t immediately change my clothes seems small,” he says. And yet, “I kind of feel the compunction to want to separate clean and dirty. And I’m the type of person [who thinks] the bed is a clean place. So, I shower at night before going to bed.” He changes into clean clothes before getting under the covers, too.

Emily Goodstein, a small-business owner in D.C., similarly views the bed, in particular, as a pristine place that should remain separate from the mire of the outside world. While some of her concern stems from practicality — she points out that dirty pillows, for instance, can lead to acne — it’s really about vibes. “I want to be able to fully relax in the bed,” Goodstein says. “I don’t want to worry about, is the bed gross?”

Things get slightly more complicated when more than one person shares the bed. When she first started dating her husband, Goodstein had to convert him to her philosophy; despite a few slip-ups, she says he was a pretty quick study.

Afrah Ansari, a medical assistant in Rochester, Mich., also adheres to a strict no-outside-clothes-on-the-bed rule. While on vacation with friends, she had to share a bed with one of her pals. The friend had just arrived from the airport, and “she immediately went to go sit on the bed, and I was like, ‘please don’t,’” Ansari says. “If we’re sharing a bed, then I need to make it very clear that the only clothes allowed on the bed are pajamas.”

For many devotees of inside clothes, it’s not only about the ickiness or potential germ risk. Comfort plays a key role, too.

“There’s certain pairs of jeans and leather pants [that] I can’t even sit down in,” says Drachel Pereira, a TikTok creator in Nashville. She shucks those garments as soon as she gets home, preferring loungewear with more elasticity. “You want to be able to relax your body and feel at home in your space.”

But Pereira is also motivated by cleanliness, and the experiences of her childhood. “It’s important to mention I was raised by immigrant parents,” she says, who came to the United States from India in the 1990s. “When we got home from school, we changed from our uniforms into home clothes. And then from home clothes, we had to shower every night before we got … into pajamas that were only for the bedroom.” She follows the same protocol to this day (minus the school uniform).

Some professions make outside clothes less of a choice and more of a safety precaution. Cedric Dark, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, keeps his hospital attire out of the house because of the bodily fluids that could be hitching a ride. And thanks to a research paper he read decades ago, there’s one accessory he never wears on the job: “It was talking about how [infections] could exist on gentlemen’s ties and go from patient to patient. And I was like, great, I hate wearing ties.”

Other jobs are just as hazardous — or more. Nick Newman is the director of the Environmental Health and Lead Clinic at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. While the vast majority of kids he sees with high lead readings can trace their exposure back to material in their homes, the second-most common source is “take-home exposure.” That means that someone, generally a parent, has brought the dust into the house, most often from construction or remodeling work. This is why Newman always asks parents what they do for a living when meeting with a new patient.

In one of Newman’s cases, “the dad would come home from work at an e-waste recycler. And his wife was like, ‘He would just come home covered in dust and be playing with the kids.’” Given the children’s high lead readings, the health department was at first perplexed by the lack of lead found in their home. But, says Newman, “we all pieced the pieces together” that they’d been exposed via their dad.

While larger companies often enforce rules to prevent lead exposure, Newman says smaller businesses, such as “mom and pop” construction companies, may not have the same safeguards in place. But the solution for anyone whose job could put them and their family at risk is quite simple — they should change out of their work clothes and shower immediately upon returning home.

After having a child, Jonathan Lynch, an assistant professor of biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, became worried about the chemicals that may be getting onto his clothes in the lab. “I was like, I walked around all day in this. I don’t think I’m tracking stuff around, but if something splashes on my shirt and I don’t notice, and all of a sudden I’m rubbing a baby’s face in it, it made me feel more self-conscious about that,” he says.

So he now changes into a new outfit upon returning home, or sometimes before leaving work. Even though he admits it’s not always logical, he sees it as a way to manage the “fear of the unknown.”

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