Where are they lurking?
You probably know that there are germs in and around your toilet. You also probably know that there are germs on a cutting board after using it to slice raw meat. While these are obvious places that you would find germs, there are plenty of objects that you interact with on a daily basis that contain more germs than either of these. What are they? What can you do to avoid them?
There are germs everywhere around you, even places that you might not think they would be. The good news is that the majority of the 60,000 types of germs you can come into contact with every day are harmless, or in some cases, even helpful. However, about 1 – 2% of germs are possibly hazardous to your health. Unfortunately, we contribute to the problem because some of these germs are caused by us. There are three main ways that humans generate germs. The first is your skin because it’s home to hundreds of different kinds of germs that slough off every day. The second source of germs comes from your respiratory system via your mouth and nose. Most often, the germs are released into the air via talking, coughing and sneezing. The third way we produce germs is found at the opposite end of our body. Due to the sheer volume of germs, there are places that are more infested than you might realize. A common area that you would expect to find germs is the bathroom. Besides there being germs on the toilet, when water comes into contact with a hard surface, it can create what’s called a biofilm, which is a slimy film of microorganisms. Yet, the bathroom isn’t the germiest place in your home. You might be surprised to find out that it’s cleaner to eat from your toilet than from some items in your kitchen. A study done in 2011 by NSF International (a public health and safety organization), found sponges and dish rags were the dirtiest household items, followed closely by kitchen sinks, toothbrush holders, pet bowls, coffee reservoirs, bathroom faucet handles, pet toys, countertops, stove knobs and cutting boards. Let’s take a closer look at some of these and other surprise germ-covered objects.
We’ll begin in the dirtiest room in the house—the kitchen. The worst culprit of all is the kitchen sponge. When you consider how much time your kitchen sponge spends being damp and warm, the type of environment bacteria love because it allows them to multiply quickly, it’s no surprise that it can be filled with germs. If you cook with raw meat and use your sponge to clean the surfaces that came into contact with it, the number of dangerous germs that accumulate on your sponge is even higher. Health experts used to recommend boiling or microwaving sponges to kill the germs so you would be able to get more use out of them. However, several studies have shown that this is only effective at removing maybe 60% of the bacteria. The bacteria that gets killed off is the weaker bacteria, which allows the stronger, more dangerous, ones to remain. According to the study from NSF International, the kitchen sink has the second highest concentration of microorganisms of all the spaces they tested. One part of your kitchen sink that can be filled with germs is the tiny metal aeration screen at the end of your faucet. This is because it’s always moist and if you accidentally touch it with dirty fingers or a contaminated piece of food, bacteria can grow wildly. Also, it builds into a biofilm that can break off into the water stream and contaminate whatever is below. Another area that often has a significant number of germs are the faucet handles because people touch them with dirty hands when they need to wash their hands. An additional item that is greatly impacted by handwashing is the kitchen towel you used to dry your hands. This is because most people rarely wash their hands effectively. Typically, they wash them too briefly or didn’t use any soap, but still dry them on the towel. This leaves enough bacteria on the towel to cause concern. An item that commonly is associated with harboring bacteria is your cutting board. If you cut raw meat on it, you expose the surface to all kinds of dangerous germs. If you don’t clean the cutting board thoroughly enough before cutting vegetables on it, you’ve now infected the vegetables with bacteria from the meat and this can make you incredibly sick. A pretty close second to cutting boards is your countertop because when preparing meals, it’s not uncommon for food particles to be spread to it. Another place that was tested by the NSF International during their study that had high levels of bacteria was stove knobs, which had more bacteria than most toilet seats. While preparing meals, when your hands are dirty, it’s not uncommon to adjust the stove knob, which soils it. One more thing that you frequently touch in the kitchen, but don’t think about, are your salt and pepper shakers. According to a study by the University of Virginia, they hide more germs than most people realize. One area the definitely doesn’t get cleaned often enough are your refrigerator shelves. They should be cleaned regularly because they’re exposed to food every day and may have drippings and residue from raw meat and expired food items on them.
After the kitchen, the next dirtiest place is the bathroom. Similar to the kitchen sink, showers and bathtubs can be breeding grounds for germs due to the damp environment and frequent use. Most people don’t clean either of these as often as they should, which is every week, or at least every other week. You probably know that your toilet is dirty, but did you know that when you flush it, the toilet sprays millions of tiny bacteria into the air, which can land on any surface in the bathroom. Another thing that can be covered in germs is your tooth brush. Your mouth has hundreds of microbes in it, so some of them are likely to wind up on your toothbrush and its bristles when you clean your teeth. This is why the American Dental Association recommends that you replace your tooth brush at least every three to four months. One of the more interesting results from the NSF International study was just how much bacteria hide on your toothbrush holder. Their testing found that it can contain over 12,000 times the concentration of bacteria found on the surface of your toilet seat. Since this is where you place your tooth brush when you’re not using it, it’s not surprising that the germs transfer to it. For women, if you use makeup, you can be spreading germs all over your face. It’s common practice to put on a little makeup in the morning and then reapply throughout the day as needed. Unfortunately, if there are any germs on your brushes or applicators from one part of your face, you could be spreading them to a different part.
Other than the kitchen and the bathroom, there are several spots within your house that can be a hotbed for germs. Your washer and dryer are used to make dirty clothes clean. The question is does it work? One study found that some disease-causing germs can actually survive the washer and dryer. The study also found that wet clothes can start growing germs after just 30 minutes of being left in a damp, enclosed space. In order to get rid of these germs, you need to clean your washer and dryer occasionally. Anything that is touched frequently is often referred to as touch points and these are known for collecting bacteria, but not usually disinfected on a regular basis. One of these touch points is the TV remote. It’s something that is constantly handled, which makes it easy to transfer germs to it. This is especially true if eat while you watch. Some other touch point are doorknobs and light switches. One thing that you have in your house that can actually make it dirtier as you try to clean is your vacuum. Sure, it sucks up visible dirty things, such as dust, hair and food particles, but it can create a vortex of bacteria growth in the bag that can come out the bottom or into the air when changing the bag. Something that you probably interact with often is your dog’s chew toys. Researchers found that while both human and dog mouths are teeming with bacteria, they are different kinds. However, despite being different germs, many of them are highly transferable, which means that close contact with your dog’s germs can upset your own bacterial balance. Since dogs like to chew on their toys, their germs can be transferred to you when you’re playing with them or your cleaning up their toys. Also, their germs can be spread to you if you let them lick your face.
Germs aren’t found just in your home though. They are found on things that you use every day. One of these things is your smartphone. A study found that on average people swipe, tap, type, and click over 2,600 times a day, which adds up to over 75 separate phone sessions for the average user. Since your phone touches not only your hands, but your face, ears and lips, it’s a breeding ground for germs. The risk increases if you share your phone with someone else. Another device that you operate daily is your computer. Your hands are constantly at work while you’re using the mouse and keyboard. A study found that computer keyboards and laptop keypads were 200,000 times dirtier than the most toilet seat. Since these germs can easily be spread to your desk, it’s no surprise that most desks have more than 20,000 bacteria per square inch on the surfaces. You’re in your car several times a day, which can increase the germs inside it. Your car dashboard has many touch points, like the steering wheel, audio knobs, thermostat controllers and vents. Any time you touch these, you’re spreading germs. Also, the air sucked through the ventilation system can expose you to mold and bacteria from the outside. Since the dashboard is usually warm from the engine and sunlight, it’s a welcoming host for mold and bacteria to grow on.
Besides your phone, what is some that you use repeatedly? Money. The “velocity of money” is how often a bank note changes hands. Scientists have studied this and found that physical bills change hands about 55 times a year on average before they are worn out and retired (the number is more than double that for smaller notes worth less money). When the bills change hands, so do germs, with fecal bacteria, mold and yeast being the most common ones. Part of this is a direct result of what US bank notes are made of (75% cotton and 25% linen) because this attracts bacteria when compared to currency of some other countries, such as Australia and Canada, that use polymers instead. However, it’s not just cash that carries germs, but credit cards do as well because they’re also passed hand-to-hand and all the little areas on a credit card provide hiding places for germs. You probably also use your card at automatic teller machines (ATMs) and point-of-sale (POS) keypads. When you think about all the fingers that touch them every day, it’s easy to see how handling one is similar to touching the hands of several people at once. Another thing associated with cash and credit cards are purses and wallets. They go where you go, like restroom, floors of restaurants and everywhere else. The same thing applies to your keys.
You can come into contact with germs through touching surfaces that you interact with on a daily basis, so it might not register that they are germy. One area you probably use but don’t realize how many germs there are is your office lounge. People are in there throughout the day touching objects, such as refrigerator handles, cabinet doors, microwaves and coffee pot, which spreads germs. If you go to the gym, the equipment is a prime source for germs. The polyester fabric, which is what most weightlifting gloves are made from, attracts a significant number of microbes, which leads to them being on every bar, plate and free weight. Even if you’re more of a cardio person, you’re still at risk because germs can easily spread to the machines since people touch them, especially when they’re sweaty. When you go to the grocery store, you grab your cart and go shop probably without much thought as to how many germs are on the cart handle. However, one four-year study found everything from saliva, fecal matter and mucus remnants attached to the handles. The study was so eye-opening that it prompted new laws in some states that requires or encourages grocery stores to provide sanitary wipes to shoppers. One thing that you might not expect to have germs is the soap dispenser. Most public restrooms provide liquid soap from refillable dispensers, but a study found that one in four dispensers actually has bacteria and it’s not on the outside of the dispenser, but in the soap. Due to this, study participants actually had an increased number of germs on their hands after washing.
With germs everywhere, how do you protect yourself from getting sick? The one thing that most of the hidden germs have in common is that they’re on places where your hands go over and over again. So, the simplest solution is to wash your hands properly and frequently. Unfortunately, most people don’t wash their hands correctly. The right way to wash your hands is to get your hands wet, apply enough soap and then lather. When lathering, scrub beneath your nails, between your fingers and the backs of your hands. This whole process should last for at least 20 seconds, or enough time to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Once you’re done scrubbing, rinse your hands with clean, running water and dry. If the sink isn’t automatic, use a paper towel or something else to turn off the faucet, so you don’t re-contaminate your hands. The other key thing to know is when to wash your hands. You should always wash your hands after going to the bathroom, before preparing food or eating and after treating a wound or caring for a sick person. In addition, you should wash your hands after doing any particularly dirty things, like petting animals, taking out the garbage, blowing your nose and handling dirty diapers.
Besides keeping your hands clean, there are things you can do to eliminate germs from your home and other areas. The best way to minimize the germs on your kitchen sponge is to replace it every week, or at least once a month. Clean your aeration screen by removing it and soaking in a diluted bleach solution at least once a week. Once you put it back in the faucet, let the water run for a few minutes. Replace your kitchen towel daily, or at least any day you cook. For areas that are prone to developing biofilms, scrubbing the surfaces with a metal brush, soap and water is useful. If you need to do a deep clean, use a 10% bleach solution. It’s a good idea to clean sink drains with a commercial cleaning agent or your own solution of one teaspoon of bleach with one quart of water. Clean out your refrigerator at least once every few weeks by discarding any foods that have gone bad and wiping down the shelves with disinfectant.
It’s important to sanitize your toothbrush weekly by using a mixture of 50% water and 50% hydrogen peroxide. After stirring these two ingredients together with your brush, let the bristles sit in there for a few minutes. Also, store your toothbrush in a spot where it’s upright, won’t touch anyone else’s brush and away from where it could get overspray from the toilet. Replace your tooth brush every 3 – 4 months. Wash or replace your makeup brushes and applicators every week. Don’t share makeup, use store samples, wear it when you’re sick or apply it with dirty hands. Keep an eye out for open sores and pimples because your skin is broken in these areas and will not be as protected from infection. Similar to your tooth brush, store your makeup brushes and applicators in an area where they aren’t exposed to the overspray from the toilet. When it comes to laundry, wash your clothes in hot water (if they can stand it) and make sure to use bleach for suitable clothes. When you wash especially dirty items, like rags, dish towels and clothes worn by anyone with an infection, use water heated to 140°F. If you leave your clothes in the washer for more than 30 minutes, run a second cycle before drying. Don’t sort or fold clean laundry on the same surface you used to sort dirty laundry without disinfecting first. Occasionally, run a regular wash cycle with bleach and water, but no clothes to rid your washer of any germs. Disinfect the TV remote, doorknobs and light switches at least once a week. The best way to eliminate germs from your vacuum is to opt for a bagless one. If you do use a bag, look for ones that have antibacterial linings. When emptying the bagless cylinder or bag compartment, do it outside. After, clean the cylinder with a diluted bleach solution and allow it to air dry. One tip to decrease the number of germs on your pillow and bed is use an allergen cover for them and your mattress.
Most phones can be cleaned by wiping them down with rubbing alcohol (check the instructions first before trying it on your phone). If you’re careful about where you place your phone, you probably only need to disinfect it a few times a week. If you’re not as careful, you should give your phone a daily wipe down. If you’re using your phone in the kitchen to follow recipes, wipe down the screen every time you wash your hands while making the meal. It’s also key to wipe down your credit cards and your purse/wallet regularly. Usually, a bleach wipe works just as well as soap and hot water and is often easier on the fabric. Refrain from setting your purse (or backpack and briefcase) down on surfaces where people eat. When it comes to your dashboard, your best bet is to wipe the entire thing down, including vent slats, with disinfecting wipes at least once a week. If you have allergies or asthma, you should do this more often to keep the mold away.
When out in public places, carry hand sanitizer with you. This way you can use it after touching doorknobs and other communal surfaces. You might want to use it after washing your hands in the bathroom if the soap dispensers have refillable containers. When using the office coffee pot, make sure you clean it afterwards to decrease the number germs, yeast and mold from developing. This is also true for your office coffee cup between uses. Avoid going to work when you know you are ill so you don’t spread germs to all of the surfaces that everyone touches. If you’re at the gym, put a towel down on machines with seats, use hand sanitizer after using machines with handles and wipe down machines after you’re done using them.
One other consideration is if you’re moving into a new home. That is the time to do a deep clean to remove any germs from the previous residents before you move all of your stuff in. Start by dusting everything that is above your head, including the bathroom exhaust fan. Next, wipe down the walls. After checking to make sure that paint can tolerate it, use a high-quality large-pad mop and a spray bottle of warm, soapy water, work your way from ceiling to floor in a side-to-side motion. For hard to reach areas, use a rag. In the kitchen and bathroom, scrub both the inside and outside of the cabinets. If there are stubborn stains, create a paste with baking soda and water. Let it sit in the cabinet for 10 minutes before wiping it away with a damp sponge, then drying with a dry cloth. Thoroughly clean the floors by using a steam mop for vinyl, laminate, and tile, but not hardwoods. For hardwoods, use a mop head that is damp, not wet, and a cleaner that works well with the floor’s finish (polyurethane is the most common). If you have carpets, rent a steam cleaner. Definitely disinfect touch points and not just light switches and doorknobs, but deadbolts, thermostat and alarm pads. Wash the inside of the dishwasher by running it on a hot water setting with a cup of white vinegar in the top rack. Then sprinkle a cup of baking soda in the bottom and run a second hot, short, but complete cycle. After, wipe down the seal if it’s grimy. Before putting any food in the refrigerator and freezer, remove the shelves/drawers and let them soak in the sink (or bathtub). While you wait, scrub the inside. If your shelves are made of glass, make sure they are at room temperature before you put them in hot water. Definitely replace the toilet seats and scour the bathtub/shower, even if it looks clean. To do this without using harsh cleaners, mix up your own scrubbing powder that has equal parts of baking soda, borax and kosher salt (be sure to wear rubber gloves that cover your arms to protect them). After testing a corner to make sure the mixture won’t ruin the finish, sprinkle it on, scrub lightly with a damp sponge and rinse.
Hidden germs are everywhere. By doing what you can to eliminate your exposure, you’ll be less likely to get sick. All of these steps, while they might seem like a lot, are designed to remove the hidden germs around you. By using a combination of good cleaning practices and proper handwashing you’re more likely to stay healthy.