Health

We Tested Our Phones For Germs And It Went Worse Than We Thought

Our office is a literal petri dish, help.

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Hi! I'm Caroline and I have a weird obsession with germs and diseases.

I also have an incubator hidden in our DIY studio where I sometimes grow germs for projects. I'm genuinely surprised none of my co-workers have reported me to HR yet.

Humans are covered in germs and most of them are harmless, but the pathogenic ones can make us really sick.

University of California Berkeley / Via ucresearch.tumblr.com

Germs include bacteria, protozoa, viruses, and fungi, and they exist everywhere. Actually, everyone has a specific bacterial ~flora~ (germ profile) on their skin and inside their bodies, so germs are totally natural. Research shows that exposure to germs, especially as a kid, can actually help boost your immune system and maintain good gut bacteria.

But you should avoid pathogens — which are different from normal germs. A pathogen is any bacteria, virus, or other organism that causes disease or infections. Think: E. coli, salmonella, Ebola, bird flu, etc. You can generally avoid these by washing your hands and maintaining proper hygiene — especially in the bathroom and kitchen, and on public transportation.

Given that my co-workers are glued to their phones, I wanted to find out what kind of germs they were carrying around.

Taylor Miller / Via BuzzFeed

BuzzFeeders are pretty much never without their phones, and we're also probably not cleaning them as much as we should be.

So I decided it would be fun (for me, at least) to find out what kind of gross stuff is living on our screens and cases. I also wanted to see if a person's lifestyle or phone habits might affect which germs were on their phone, or if basically all of them would just be disgusting.

So I surprised 20 people in the lobby on a Monday morning and tested their phones because I'm literally the worst.

The element of surprise was necessary so that people had no time to prepare or clean their phones once they agreed to let me test them.

I used a special swab kit with a long cotton swab that breaks off into a tube filled with liquid, which preserves the germs until they go onto a petri dish where they can grow. First I got the swab wet with some of the liquid in the tube so it picked up everything (no matter how crusty or dry). Then I swabbed every inch of the phone — no button or corner was spared.

After swabbing, I sent out a questionnaire asking my co-workers where they bring their phone, how they clean it, whether they get sick often, etc. I hoped their answers would allow me to find patterns or common habits among the people who had the germiest or the cleanest phones.

Next, we sent the samples to a microbiology lab at Columbia University Medical Center.

We teamed up with an awesome researcher, Dr. Susan Whittier, and the microbiology lab at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

Whittier transferred the swabs onto agar, a nutrient medium that feeds the germs so they can live in petri dishes. We waited three days so the germs had time to grow and ~thrive~ until they were visible to the naked eye. Then Whittier tested the samples to find out exactly which kinds of bacteria, fungi, and molds were living on each person's phone.

The researcher was legitimately shocked by how many germs were on our phones.

"I went into it thinking probably 50% of the plates would grow something, so I was really shocked when 100% of the phone cultures grew a lot of germs," Whittier says. I, however, wasn't shocked — because as I said before, my co-workers are never without their phones.

Just to clarify, Whittier tested for quantity and type of bacteria, fungus, and mold. She didn't test for viruses, like flus or STIs. And considering the amount of bacteria that was found, we kind of don't even want to know about viruses.

First up, the harmless bacteria. Most phones tested positive for these five kinds of germs from the skin, mouth, nose, and the environment.

Taylor Miller / Via BuzzFeed

* Staphylococcus epidermidis (not aureus): If you were to just swab your skin directly, this is what you'd find, Whittier says. Staph epidermidis bacteria is totally normal and it would get on the phone from regular daily use, like touching it or talking on it.

* Micrococcus: This makes up the normal skin flora, especially on the face, Whittier says. Everyone has different skin bacteria, and some people have either more Micrococcus or staph, but it depends on the person. It can get on your phone if you touch your face a lot or talk on it often.

* Streptococcus viridans: Strep viridans lives in the mouth and throat, so it'll get on your phone from talking or from your fingers after touching your lips, after coughing, etc. It's usually harmless, but it can also cause infections at very high levels in vulnerable people, and rarely it can pass from the mouth to the genitals to cause UTIs.

* Moraxella: This is from sinuses and it's often found in people with recurrent sinusitis or post-nasal drip. It isn't as common as strep, and in high levels it can cause inner ear and bloodstream infections in children and immunocompromised people, says Whittier. It's still a pretty normal thing to find on a phone.

* Bacillus: Bacillus is a very common bacteria from the environment, so it's basically a sign that you've been outdoors. A lot of Bacillus means the phone is super dirty, but not with anything that will make you sick — just literal dirt. It could get on a phone if it's been outside or from touching surfaces before your phone.

Why does each plate look so different if most of them have the same five nonpathogenic bacteria? "Every person has different bacteria on their skin and inside their bodies; some have more of certain types than others. So each germ culture is kind of like a unique 'germ fingerprint,'" Whittier says.

Some of the phones had actual pathogens, which was a little alarming.

Remember, pathogens are potentially disease-causing strains of bacteria. So, yeah, we had these, too.

Scroll down and slide over each picture to reveal the pathogen!

Like this one, which is nicknamed "Superbug."

What it is: MRSA is a Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics, including methicillin. MRSA can cause very serious infections in the skin and internal organs, and can sometimes be fatal in vulnerable people. It can spread easily between people and surfaces — often in health care settings — but you usually have to have an open wound or a suppressed immune system for it to get that bad.

What it means: "It's a little worrisome for a phone to test positive for MRSA because it isn't part of our normal flora, but a small part of the population can carry it in their nose or mouth without any problems," Whittier explained. We also know that MRSA loves to lurk on gym equipment and locker rooms, so it's not completely abnormal to have it on your phone. "The potential for a little MRSA on a phone to cause disease in a healthy person is very low," says Whittier. And don't worry, this person disinfected their phone as soon as they found out.

What it is: MRSA is a Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics, including methicillin. MRSA can cause very serious infections in the skin and internal organs, and can sometimes be fatal in vulnerable people. It can spread easily between people and surfaces — often in health care settings — but you usually have to have an open wound or a suppressed immune system for it to get that bad.

What it means: "It's a little worrisome for a phone to test positive for MRSA because it isn't part of our normal flora, but a small part of the population can carry it in their nose or mouth without any problems," Whittier explained. We also know that MRSA loves to lurk on gym equipment and locker rooms, so it's not completely abnormal to have it on your phone. "The potential for a little MRSA on a phone to cause disease in a healthy person is very low," says Whittier. And don't worry, this person disinfected their phone as soon as they found out.

← Slide →

What it is: MRSA is a Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics, including methicillin. MRSA can cause very serious infections in the skin and internal organs, and can sometimes be fatal in vulnerable people. It can spread easily between people and surfaces — often in health care settings — but you usually have to have an open wound or a suppressed immune system for it to get that bad.

What it means: "It's a little worrisome for a phone to test positive for MRSA because it isn't part of our normal flora, but a small part of the population can carry it in their nose or mouth without any problems," Whittier explained. We also know that MRSA loves to lurk on gym equipment and locker rooms, so it's not completely abnormal to have it on your phone. "The potential for a little MRSA on a phone to cause disease in a healthy person is very low," says Whittier. And don't worry, this person disinfected their phone as soon as they found out.

Or this bacteria, which is responsible for staph infections and toxic shock syndrome.

What it is: Staphylococcus aureus is a group of pathogenic staph bacteria which can cause a bunch of different diseases and infections. They can live on the skin or in the respiratory tract and nose — and about half the population carries Staph aureus with no problems. But this also makes it easy to spread between people and cause disease.

It can also live on surfaces, like subway handles, doorknobs, community bathrooms and showers, and especially gyms. "It's important to wipe down gym equipment with antibacterial wipes before and after you use it and put your phone on a paper towel first to avoid picking up staph and MRSA," Whittier says.

What it means: It's a bit concerning, says Whittier, because if Staph aureus gets into an open wound it can cause major skin and blood infections, which can result in boils, food poisoning, toxic shock syndrome, and even death. But, again, some people can carry it with no problem.


OH, PS: The Staph aureus was actually found on my phone and I only tested it for fun BUT THIS WAS NOT FUN.

What it is: Staphylococcus aureus is a group of pathogenic staph bacteria which can cause a bunch of different diseases and infections. They can live on the skin or in the respiratory tract and nose — and about half the population carries Staph aureus with no problems. But this also makes it easy to spread between people and cause disease.

It can also live on surfaces, like subway handles, doorknobs, community bathrooms and showers, and especially gyms. "It's important to wipe down gym equipment with antibacterial wipes before and after you use it and put your phone on a paper towel first to avoid picking up staph and MRSA," Whittier says.

What it means: It's a bit concerning, says Whittier, because if Staph aureus gets into an open wound it can cause major skin and blood infections, which can result in boils, food poisoning, toxic shock syndrome, and even death. But, again, some people can carry it with no problem.


OH, PS: The Staph aureus was actually found on my phone and I only tested it for fun BUT THIS WAS NOT FUN.

← Slide →

What it is: Staphylococcus aureus is a group of pathogenic staph bacteria which can cause a bunch of different diseases and infections. They can live on the skin or in the respiratory tract and nose — and about half the population carries Staph aureus with no problems. But this also makes it easy to spread between people and cause disease.

It can also live on surfaces, like subway handles, doorknobs, community bathrooms and showers, and especially gyms. "It's important to wipe down gym equipment with antibacterial wipes before and after you use it and put your phone on a paper towel first to avoid picking up staph and MRSA," Whittier says.

What it means: It's a bit concerning, says Whittier, because if Staph aureus gets into an open wound it can cause major skin and blood infections, which can result in boils, food poisoning, toxic shock syndrome, and even death. But, again, some people can carry it with no problem.


OH, PS: The Staph aureus was actually found on my phone and I only tested it for fun BUT THIS WAS NOT FUN.

Or this one, which is really ~shitty~.

What it is: I mean, basically poop. You've probably heard of E. coli from restaurant outbreaks and supermarket food recalls. It's a fecal organism, so it's usually found in poop but it can also live in the gastrointestinal tract along with other gut bacteria. There are different types, and some strains are way more pathogenic than other ones, but it has the potential to cause serious food poisoning and death. Infections spread through the fecal-oral route, so you'll get sick if you touch your mouth with contaminated hands after using the bathroom or touching fecal matter.

What it means: "E. coli on a phone could be from the person's stool if they didn't wash their hands or another person's stool if the phone went into a public bathroom because fecal matter sprays everywhere when the toilet flushes," Whittier says. This is why you shouldn't bring your phone to the bathroom or use it while eating. Interestingly enough, the guy who had this on his phone actually got sick from a burrito contaminated with E. coli a month ago — so it made sense.

What it is: I mean, basically poop. You've probably heard of E. coli from restaurant outbreaks and supermarket food recalls. It's a fecal organism, so it's usually found in poop but it can also live in the gastrointestinal tract along with other gut bacteria. There are different types, and some strains are way more pathogenic than other ones, but it has the potential to cause serious food poisoning and death. Infections spread through the fecal-oral route, so you'll get sick if you touch your mouth with contaminated hands after using the bathroom or touching fecal matter.

What it means: "E. coli on a phone could be from the person's stool if they didn't wash their hands or another person's stool if the phone went into a public bathroom because fecal matter sprays everywhere when the toilet flushes," Whittier says. This is why you shouldn't bring your phone to the bathroom or use it while eating. Interestingly enough, the guy who had this on his phone actually got sick from a burrito contaminated with E. coli a month ago — so it made sense.

← Slide →

What it is: I mean, basically poop. You've probably heard of E. coli from restaurant outbreaks and supermarket food recalls. It's a fecal organism, so it's usually found in poop but it can also live in the gastrointestinal tract along with other gut bacteria. There are different types, and some strains are way more pathogenic than other ones, but it has the potential to cause serious food poisoning and death. Infections spread through the fecal-oral route, so you'll get sick if you touch your mouth with contaminated hands after using the bathroom or touching fecal matter.

What it means: "E. coli on a phone could be from the person's stool if they didn't wash their hands or another person's stool if the phone went into a public bathroom because fecal matter sprays everywhere when the toilet flushes," Whittier says. This is why you shouldn't bring your phone to the bathroom or use it while eating. Interestingly enough, the guy who had this on his phone actually got sick from a burrito contaminated with E. coli a month ago — so it made sense.

And this not-so-fun little fungus:

What it is: Two phones tested positive for a type of yeast, called Candida albicans. It's definitely not the kind you use to bake bread. "It's not a very common skin germ and it has the potential to be pathogenic and cause things like thrush or yeast infections in immunocompromised patients or babies," Whittier says.

What it means: If it's on a cell phone it probably isn't enough to make a healthy person sick. "If you are immunocompetent and aren't prone to infections, yeast on your hands or phone isn't likely to cause any problems," says Whittier. It's easy to clean off with a diluted alcohol solution.

What it is: Two phones tested positive for a type of yeast, called Candida albicans. It's definitely not the kind you use to bake bread. "It's not a very common skin germ and it has the potential to be pathogenic and cause things like thrush or yeast infections in immunocompromised patients or babies," Whittier says.

What it means: If it's on a cell phone it probably isn't enough to make a healthy person sick. "If you are immunocompetent and aren't prone to infections, yeast on your hands or phone isn't likely to cause any problems," says Whittier. It's easy to clean off with a diluted alcohol solution.

← Slide →

What it is: Two phones tested positive for a type of yeast, called Candida albicans. It's definitely not the kind you use to bake bread. "It's not a very common skin germ and it has the potential to be pathogenic and cause things like thrush or yeast infections in immunocompromised patients or babies," Whittier says.

What it means: If it's on a cell phone it probably isn't enough to make a healthy person sick. "If you are immunocompetent and aren't prone to infections, yeast on your hands or phone isn't likely to cause any problems," says Whittier. It's easy to clean off with a diluted alcohol solution.

BUT the researcher assured us that our office isn't a biohazard and we aren’t all about to die.

Taylor Miller / Via BuzzFeed

"The amount of pathogenic bacteria on the phones was still relatively low and it doesn't have much risk for causing disease in healthy, young adults," says Whittier.

Plus, it's unclear whether those pathogens were naturally occurring on the person's body or transmitted to the person from someone else or from a contaminated surface in the office, gym, subway, etc. "We really don't know how these germs got on the phone, and they can survive for up to four days — which makes it even harder to pinpoint the source," Whittier says.

At the end of the day, nobody needed to be super worried about their results. But, sure, the people who had pathogens should probably clean their phone at some point and maybe wash their hands more carefully.

Sanitize. Your. Phones. I tested mine again right after cleaning it, and it was bacteria-free!

Caroline Kee / Ashley McGetrick / Via BuzzFeed

Remember how my phone had the bad kind of staph? Well, I also used my phone as a control by swabbing it before and after sanitizing with a diluted alcohol spray. The control sample tested negative for everything, including staph.

"There's nothing that will resist simple cleaning protocol with an alcohol solution," says Whittier. But you want to make sure you aren't cleaning your phone with antibacterial wipes or liquids that can damage the screen. The diluted alcohol spray method is both phone-safe and 100% effective.

Sure, your phone will get covered in germs again after you clean it. But it's still good to keep the overall germ count down, especially during flu season or when your immune system is down. "Even if you're just cleaning it to reduce bacterial load, you're also killing viruses or stomach bugs that can make you really sick," Whittier says.

It's also important to wash your hands and not use your phone in the bathroom or while eating, because that defeats the purpose of washing your hands.

Even if you're an avid hand-washer, your phone can still be picking up germs basically all day long. So try to limit that by keeping it out of the bathroom (where gross stuff like Norovirus lurks), and don't use it while you're eating, since that can transmit bacteria and viruses to your mouth and get you sick. "We aren't trying to be sterile or paranoid — there's just no reason not to try to reduce your risk and exposure to pathogens," says Whittier.

So you can guess what the people with the germiest phones had in common...

Andreypopov / Getty Images / Via thinkstockphotos.com

I looked back at the questionnaire results from the nine people with the highest quantity or most pathogenic germs on their phone. They all said they never cleaned their phone or did so less than once a year using a cloth or a wipe.

More importantly, every single one of them regularly brings their phone to the bathroom (public or private), and almost all of them use it at the gym as well.

And what was the magical secret of the person who had the cleanest phone? (THERE ACTUALLY WAS ONE.)

EasyCare / Via amazon.com

One of the phone cultures grew so few germs that it surprised the researcher (and me!) because every other petri dish looked like a Jackson Pollack painting. Not surprisingly, she never brings her phone to the bathroom and doesn't use it at the gym or while eating.

But the real secret is that she cleans it once a week using this magical "phone soap." It's not actually soap — it's a weird charger box that shoots out UV lights that "kill 99.9% of germs using UV rays." It costs $50 and she said all the instructions were in Mandarin and made zero sense but she was very happy to learn her random Amazon purchase was worth it.

TL;DR: I need this fucking magical sanitizing UV light box charger thing from China.

At the end of the day, it was really cool to see what exactly was living on our phones, even if it was a little scary.

Taylor Miller / Via BuzzFeed

Maybe ignorance is bliss and I'm just a weirdo who really wanted to see what kind of little guys were living on my phone. But most of the people whose phones I tested were pretty interested in the results, and they thought it made sense given their ~liberal~ phone habits. It even inspired some people to start cleaning their phones more often, so I feel my job is done.

"The most important thing is to just be conscious of the fact that wherever you bring your phone, there's potential for it to pick up bacteria and pathogens in that environment," says Whittier. But it's also just cool to know more about our unique bacterial fingerprint, because that's what makes each of us special.

We also surprised some people with their results. Watch here to see how it all went down:

View this video on YouTube

Jesse McLaren / Caroline Kee / Via youtube.com

Caroline Kee is a health writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Caroline Kee at caroline.kee@buzzfeed.com.

Contact Taylor Miller at taylor.miller@buzzfeed.com.

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