WHERE THE GERMS ARE, Part 1: Inside your house
When you think about germs and germ exposure, your brain probably goes straight to the grody porta-potty from hell, or to the claustrophobic New York City subway system. And while both of those places can definitely be germy, you’re actually more at risk of getting sick from the germs that you pick up at home, Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center at the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health, told BuzzFeed Life.
“At home we’re in closer proximity to people that can transmit illness,” she says. “We’re also more likely to let our guard down at home — we’re less diligent about using disinfectants, or washing our hands. In public lots of people use elbows and feet to open doors or turn on faucets, but at home you don’t even think to do that.”
Here are some of the germier hot spots inside the house:
1. The kitchen sink.
Your kitchen is way more contaminated than your bathroom, according to research published in 2008 in the Journal of Applied Microbiology. Yes, seriously! The researchers found that the average kitchen sink harbors about 100,000 bacteria per square centimeter, compared to the average toilet’s 100 bacteria per square centimeter. And it’s not like the bacteria in the kitchen is less harmful than what you find in the can: “Fecal bacteria in kitchen sinks were in the range of hundreds compared to less than 1 per square centimeter of toilets,” Reynolds says.
There are a few reasons for this: For starters, we clean and disinfect our toilets a lot more often than we do our sinks, Reynolds says. Plus, germs thrive in moist environments (like in a sink drain). Food prep introduces dangerous bugs like E. coli and salmonella to the equation. Leftover food particles give germs something to feast on. And then there you are with your (likely) improperly washed hands, turning on and off the faucet, scrubbing dishes, wiping things up — and getting germs everywhere. Yummy.
The solution: The parts of your sink that you should disinfect with much greater frequency: The drain, and the faucet handle. ApartmentTherapy.com offers clear and straightforward step-by-step sink-cleaning instructions, if you don’t know where to begin.
2. That dish sponge, though.
There’s another reason why your kitchen is so filthy: “Your sponge, dishcloth, or common brush you use to wash your dishes … those environments are perfect sites for germs to grow,” Reynolds says. “Studies at the [University of Arizona] found 60% of home dishcloths tested positive for influenza (around eight samples collected); 32% for MRSA (38 samples collected); 10% for Salmonella; [and] 32% for E. coli,” she says.
Different studies show different percentages, but Reynolds says the evidence is clear: Dishrags in your kitchen are total germ magnets. And even more troubling is that we often use those towels to “clean” our counters, which means that rather than cleaning up after ourselves, we’re increasing the odds of cross-contamination in the kitchen.
The solution: You can toss your dish-towels in the laundry between each use. You can let them dry out completely between uses, which helps kill off some of the bacteria. Or (and this is the most effective/easiest thing for people) you can dip your rag in a sink with a dilute bleach solution, Reynolds says.
3. And also the bathroom hand towel.
The same general rules apply here: Germs love moist environments, and thrive on shared towels of any kind (whether in the kitchen or the bathroom). “If you utilize a shared hand towel in the bathroom, you are likely sharing more than just the towel,” Reynolds says. Sharing things like MRSA, for instance, or the flu virus.
The solution: “Face and hand towels should be single use, dried between use and laundered using the sanitizing cycle on your washing machine,” Reynolds says.
4. Within three to six feet of your toilet.
“When you flush the toilet, studies show it can spray between three and six feet in every direction,” Reynolds says. That means that anything in the splash zone could potentially be contaminated by… whatever you put in the toilet. “Certainly fecal matter, E. coli, if someone is ill with salmonella infection — anything that can be fecally transmitted can be transmitted form those sprays,” Reynolds says.
The solution: Keep your toothbrush in a drawer or cabinet, and frequently wipe down all surfaces with a disinfecting wipe.
5. That bar of soap.
“It’s not a sanitizing or disinfecting product, it’s a cleaning product,” Reynolds says. “And cleaners are not intended to kill germs, so they can end up collecting germs. People don’t really think about that.” And while it may sound ridiculous, you should clean your bar of soap after you use it, Reynolds says. That’s especially true if you share it with people in your household.
The solution: Use liquid soap instead. (Just, uh, remember to disinfect the pump with some regularity). Shown above: Blue Q Liquid Hand Soap, $9.94.
6. In your washing machine.
Prepare yourself for this one: “Most germs are killed in the dryer,” Reynolds says. “So when you’re transferring clean laundry out of your laundry machine, you’re actually touching laundry that’s just covered with fecal matter.”
The solution: Go wash your hands after you transfer the laundry from the washer to the dryer. See the bottom of this post for instructions on how to wash your hands perfectly. Another thing that’ll help is to wash your clothes on the sanitizing cycle on the washing machine, if possible.
WHERE THE GERMS ARE, Part 2: At your workplace
According to an NSF International survey, about 24% of American workers admit to coming to work even when they know they’re sick.
That’s a big deal, because your office is basically a giant playground for germs. Reynolds and her colleagues have conducted several studies to see how quickly germs spread through an office environment. In one study, they put a harmless virus on a push-plate door in a building’s entrance, and then monitored where it spread, and how quickly. In a more recent study, they put a harmless virus on someone’s hands, and then asked that person to go about their day normally. In both studies, the results were roughly the same. “By lunchtime, the virus was everywhere,” Reynolds says. They found traces of it on more than 50% of public surfaces, and on the hands of almost half of the office workers.
As for the germiest places at work? Pretty much all the obvious spots — the ones that people touched the most. Specifically, these places:
7. The break room.
In the first study, the virus contaminated the break room within two hours. It was found on the coffee pot, the microwave, and the fridge door handle.
The solution: Depends on your level of neurosis, to be honest. You can bring your own coffee in a mug from home, of course, and never use the work microwave. But if you’d actually like to enjoy some of your office perks, just be diligent about washing your hands throughout the day. And encourage your workplace to stock up on disinfecting wipes, and leave them in accessible spots.
After the break room, the virus spread to the common bathrooms. Worth noting here that pretty much every bathroom, whether it’s at work or at home or in public, comes with a lot of germs. Something that might make you feel better, though: Reynolds says it’s probably fine to go ahead and sit on a public toilet seat. Really! Read all about it.
The solution: You’ve totally got this, because you’ve been doing it forever: Wash your hands well, and then use a paper towel to open the bathroom door as you leave.
9. Your computer, keyboard, mouse, and office phone.
By the end of four hours, the virus had spread to peoples’ individual cubicles and offices, and was now present on all the obvious culprits: anything that people touched.
The solution: Grab those disinfecting wipes. You can also follow these incredibly detailed instructions from PC World on how to clean your keyboard.
WHERE THE GERMS ARE, Part 3: In your car
Another place that could use a solid disinfectant: Any “transfer” area between work and home. Like your car. That’s especially true if you have kids, Reynolds says. “When the kids get in the car, I pass around the hand sanitizer,” she says.
In fact, speaking of kids:
10. Car seats. Germs all over car seats.
Reynolds says that kids’ car seats are notorious for housing a ton of germs, based on her own and others’ research. In fact, your kid’s car seat likely has more germs than your toilet does, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. and the company Continental Tyres.
The solution: Tackle the problem at the source: your kids’ grubby hands. And a bottle of hand sanitizer ought to do the trick. “It’s a routine in my household — the kids get in the car, and I pass around the hand sanitizer,” Reynolds says.
11. The steering wheel, dashboard, and seatbelt.
Beyond the backseat and anywhere that children come into contact with, Reynolds says to also be mindful about any “high-touch” surfaces in your car. Think of where you’re most likely to put your fingers and hands when you use your vehicle: steering wheel, dashboard, seatbelt buckle, glove compartment, door handles, and locks… you get the idea.
The solution: “Just wipe down your steering wheel and other high-touch areas with a disinfecting wipe,” Reynolds says.
WHERE THE GERMS ARE, Part 4: On your stuff
Of course: The things you touch every day are going to have germs on them. And so are the things that you put on the ground.
12. Your cell phone.
“You have to think of personal electronic devices as an extension of your own hand,” Reynolds says. “They’re always in your hand, and you’re always accessing them. They can become as contaminated as your own hands.” That probably explains why research from the U.K. found that 1 in 6 cell phones is contaminated with fecal matter.
The solution: For instructions on how to clean your mobile devices without destroying them, check out this incredibly detailed article from the New York Times.
13. Your purse or backpack.
And not just the handles — think of where that purse has been before you plop it on your kitchen table when you get home from work. “We put purses and backpacks everywhere,” Reynolds says. Maybe you put your purse on the floor at work. Or you rest your backpack on the subway platform so that you don’t have to hold it. In both cases, your pack will definitely pick up all sorts of fun germs.
The solution: “Leave them by the door, or hang them on a hook when you get home,” Reynolds says.
14. Your shoes.
“The bottom of our shoes definitely track in dirt and germs and other contaminants,” Reynolds says. You’ve likely visited households where the rule is to leave your shoes at the door — well, there’s definitely something to that. “The bottom of your shoes will definitely transmit germs,” she says.
The solution: Implement the rule in your own house, and enforce it. “Especially if you have children at the crawling stage, it’s a good idea to leave your shoes at the door,” Reynolds says.
Now for some good news.
“Hand washing is still the best defense,” Reynolds says. “Wash your hands diligently. Especially after participating in a behavior where you know there are germs present — handling raw meat, doing the laundry, using the bathroom. Before you eat or touch your face, think about your exposure route. How the germs get on your hands, and how they can transfer from your hands to your mouth.”
It’s gross to think about, but it’s also reassuring: Simply washing your hands right can go a LONG way.
How to wash your hands RIGHT:
Use soap and warm water for about 20 to 30 seconds, Reynolds says. Spend most of that time lathering up and rubbing your hands together, and only the end of the time rinsing the soap off. “I do 20 seconds of lathering, and then however long it takes to rinse,” Reynolds says.
Also important: Make sure to really scrub, and don’t miss any spots. That means get under your fingernails, in between your fingers, underneath any jewelry, and even an inch or so up your wrists. “Go up beyond where you wear your watch,” she says, “because that area’s involved in surface contact and germ transmission” — just think about how you may rest your wrists against your desk when you’re typing at your computer, for instance.
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