Sharpie difference

Stein is a Times staff writer.

Before patients go under the knife, they’re often marked with a pen to denote where the surgeon will cut. Because of fears of bacterial contamination between patients, the pens -- special one-use pens that contain gentian violet, an antifungal agent, or Sharpies -- are tossed after one use.

But do both kinds of pens truly harbor bacteria after one use? Dr. Sarah Forgie, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta, decided to find out.

Forgie knew the Sharpies contained alcohol, because, she says, “One of my kids used them to color all over my white kitchen cabinets.” In determining how to remove the unwanted illustrations (she said Formula 409 worked pretty well), she learned the ingredients.

Pens were tested by contaminating them with four different types of bacteria commonly found in operating rooms, including two super bugs. They were then left out for varying time periods, from five minutes to a week. None of the Sharpies showed traces of bacteria, but the surgical pens did.


Dr. Catherine Burton, a resident who also worked on the study, is presenting the work at the Infectious Diseases Society of America annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

These days, every cost-saving measure helps.