No matter how well we clean, our homes are full of bacteria, germs, dirt, and all kinds of invisible particles. If there were an easy way to quantify just how many there are, even the most blasé among us would make a swift shift to full-on germaphobe mode.
The germiest places in your kitchen, for instance, are objects and spots you should really clean regularly to stop harmful bacteria from flourishing. But how often do you wash out the vegetable drawer in your kitchen or sanitize the water dispenser? When was the last time you washed the knobs on your stove or washed out your knife block? A month ago? A year ago? Never? Oops.
If you’re grossed out by all of the germs and bacteria that might be lurking in your kitchen, you should know there are plenty of other places for such organisms to hide in your home. And, like those random nooks and crannies in your kitchen, you probably aren’t regularly cleaning these germ hot spots. Ready to see the error of your ways and get at least a little bit grossed out? Read on to check out which places in your home are the germiest.
1. Dish sponge or rag
NSF International, an independent public health and safety organization, conducted a Germiest Places in the Home study in 2011. The organization asked 22 families to swab 30 household items to measure the contamination levels of yeast, mold, and coliform bacteria. Although most people thought the bathroom would be the germiest place in the house, it turned out the kitchen was actually worse when it came to the presence of bacteria, yeast, and mold.
In fact, the germiest item in your entire home is likely your dish sponge or rag. NSF found coliform bacteria — a family of bacteria that includes Salmonella and E. coli and is an indicator of potential fecal contamination — on more than 75% of dish sponges and rags.
To clean a wet sponge, place it in the microwave for two minutes once a day. You should also replace it often. NSF advises getting a new sponge every two weeks or even more often. The organization also advises that dishcloths, towels, and rags are better options for kitchen cleaning than sponges. That’s because they can be sanitized with your washing machine’s sanitizing cycle or with bleach. You should replace washable linens every one to two days to keep germs in check.
2. Toothbrush holder
NSF’s researchers, reporting on the results of the Germiest Places in the Home study, compiled a list ranking the germ counts of each of the household items swabbed. Then, the organization ranked the items based on the average normalized count of germs — including staph, coliform, yeast, and mold — across the 22 households that were swabbed. After the dish sponge or rag, the household item with the highest germ count was the toothbrush holder, with 3,318,477 average normalized microorganisms per 10 square centimeters.
Now is a great time to switch to a toothbrush holder that’s dishwasher safe. That way, you can place the toothbrush holder in the dishwasher on a sanitizing cycle, and wash it once or twice per week. If your toothbrush holder isn’t dishwasher-safe, you can hand wash it with hot, soapy water. Then, you should rinse and wipe it with a disinfecting wipe, also once or twice per week. While you’re at it, why not pop your toothbrush in the dishwasher to get rid of bugs, such as E. coli, listeria, and strep? And always make sure you replace your toothbrush after you’ve been sick.
3. Pet bowl
Next on NSF’s list of the germiest places in your home was the pet bowl. The report said pet bowls had 473,828 average normalized microorganisms per 10 square centimeters. That’s probably not too surprising, especially if you pay attention to your dog or cat’s unsanitary habits. (Hey, they don’t know any better, right?) But knowing the pet bowl is the third germiest item in the house might stop you from casually setting that bowl on the kitchen counter when you’re grabbing Fido’s food or getting some fresh water for Kitty.
We hate to break it to you, but you probably aren’t washing your pet bowls enough. (When you think about it, you’d never eat off a plate that was left out for days or a week at a time, would you?) Pet dishes should be washed daily. NSF recommends either using a sanitizing dishwasher cycle or scrubbing by hand with hot soapy water, then rinsing. If you decide to wash by hand, place the pet dishes in a 1:50 bleach rinse, which you can make by adding a cap of bleach to a gallon of water. Soak for about 10 minutes once per week. Rinse thoroughly, and then allow to air dry.
4. Coffee reservoir
A coffee machine seems like a pretty innocuous piece of equipment, especially if you make a beeline straight to it each morning in order to wake up and feel like a functional human being. But the reservoir in your coffee maker was actually fourth by the germ count on NSF’s list, with 50,585 average normalized microorganisms per 10 square centimeters.
The researchers noted the coffee reservoir’s place within the top 10 germiest places in the home illustrates that warm, moist environments are excellent breeding grounds for germs. Just like your dish sponge, you probably don’t clean your coffee maker’s reservoir often enough. Yeast and mold were found in 31% of households. And of those households, 86% had yeast or mold in the dish sponge and 50% in the coffee reservoir of the coffee maker.
NSF noted you should follow the cleaning instructions provided by your coffee maker’s manufacturer. But if there aren’t specific recommendations for the coffee reservoir, there’s a simple protocol to follow. Add up to 4 cups of undiluted vinegar to the reservoir, and let it stand for 30 minutes. Then, run the vinegar through the unit. After that, run two to three cycles of fresh water through the unit, until you can’t smell the vinegar anymore. Most manufacturers recommend you clean the reservoir every 40 to 80 brew cycles or at least once per month.
5. Kitchen sink
Although the kitchen sink doesn’t have the most microorganisms per square centimeter, it’s still one of the worst offenders on the list. (After all, it’s probably the location where you keep that germy, grimy dish sponge or rag, isn’t it?) NSF researchers calculated the kitchen sink hosts 31,905 average normalized microorganisms per 10 square centimeters. The researchers found coliform bacteria — remember, this is the family that contains E. coli and salmonella — on 45% of kitchen sinks. And in the households where swabs revealed yeast or mold, those organisms were found in 27% of kitchen sinks. Sounds like a pretty good reason to start really scrubbing your sink, doesn’t it?
At least once or twice a week, you should wash and disinfect the sides and bottom of the sink, according to NSF. Each week, you should wash your kitchen sink strainer(s) in the dishwasher. And each month, you should also sanitize the drain and the disposal by pouring a solution of 1 teaspoon household bleach and 1 quart of water down the drain.
6. Pet toy
Next on the list were pet toys, with 29,365 average normalized microorganisms per 10 square centimeters. But it’s not just your run-of-the-mill germs that you need to worry about when your cat or dog leaves his toys lying around your house. NSF found more than 5% of households surveyed contained staphylococcus aureus. Where in the house is staph most prevalent? On pet toys, 23% of which hosted staph. NSF noted that staph is dangerous because it could be resistant to antibiotics.
That’s a great reason to get your pets to part with their toys regularly, so you can clean them. NSF recommended cleaning hard toys with hot, soapy water, then rinsing with fresh water, disinfecting with a mild bleach solution, and rinsing to remove any residue. Soft toys, on the other hand, can go in the washing machine on its sanitizing cycle. The organization recommended washing toys monthly or more often.
7. Bathroom faucet handle
Almost as bad as pet toys are bathroom faucet handles, which NSF calculated host 28,068 average normalized microorganisms per 10 square centimeters. The researchers found coliform bacteria on 9% of bathroom faucet handles, staph on 5% of them, and yeast or mold on 27% of them. That’s still not nearly as bad as in the kitchen. But it’s a pretty good indication that while you’re scrubbing down the toilet and scraping dried toothpaste out of the sink, you should take the time to thoroughly clean the faucet, too.
Fortunately, faucet handles in the bathroom and in the kitchen (where, yes, you should also be cleaning them) are relatively easy to disinfect. NSF recommended cleaning them daily with a disinfecting cleaner or even disinfecting wipes, which are a fast, easy way to get the task out of the way and eradicate germs.
If you picture what goes on in your kitchen, it’s not really a surprise NSF found coliform bacteria on the countertops in 30% of the homes tested. Interestingly enough, coliform bacteria can be traced to a wide array of food items. Raw meat and poultry are the obvious culprit, but unwashed produce is another big source, too. Another way that coliform finds its way into the kitchen is if you don’t wash your hands properly or if you touch your pets, their dishes, or their toys. (That makes us wonder: Is there a good way to just keep pets out of the kitchen altogether?)
NSF advised that countertops should be washed daily. Once you’ve finished preparing your food, wash the countertop with hot soapy water. Then, rinse it with clean water, and apply a bleach-and-water solution or a store-bought sanitizing agent that’s recommended for the specific material of your countertops.
Reading NSF’s study, you’ve probably concluded you aren’t cleaning your kitchen or bathroom — and all the items in it — often or thoroughly enough. You’re definitely right. But there are other places, outside of the kitchen and bathroom, where you might want to focus some of your newfound zeal for sanitizing. Real Simple spoke to environmental biologist Kelly Reynolds, who said another germy spot to pay more attention to is your stash of electronics. Remote controls and computer keyboards, which your whole family probably handles, can contain thousands of bacteria, including some of the same varieties spotted on kitchen sponges.
Make a habit of using wrung-out disinfecting wipes to sanitize remote controls, keyboards, video game controllers, the keyboard mouse, and smartphone or tablet covers. Reynolds recommended going at it once per week and also noted you should clean all touchscreen surfaces with a scratch-free product designed specifically for use on electronics.
10. Family room carpet
If everybody’s regularly hanging out in the family room or living room, the carpet in that space is bound to be a hot spot for germs. Reynolds said there could be as many as 200,000 bacteria per square inch. And she has found organisms, including E. coli, salmonella, and MRSA, in carpet fibers. Why is the carpet so bad? It collects all kinds of particles, including skin cells, food, pollen, and pet dander, which make it easy for germs to thrive. And anytime you walk on the carpet or your children or pets roll around on it, the movement kicks up germs to the surface.
Fortunately, you probably already know how to clean the carpet. It’s just a matter of making sure that you’re finding time for this chore frequently enough. Reynolds recommended vacuuming weekly with the beater brush turned on. Then, you should spray the carpet with a fabric sanitizing product. And finally, you should hire a service to do a deep steam-cleaning at least once per year.
11. Bath towels
There’s nothing more comfortable than wrapping up in a fluffy towel after a bath or a shower. But you need to pay close attention to make sure yours aren’t harboring all kinds of gross microorganisms. Reynolds warned that when towels stay damp for 20 minutes or longer, that allows mildew and bacteria to breed. She found MRSA on 18% of the towels she tested in people’s homes. And she noted each time you reuse a towel that’s already harboring unsavory organisms, you’re increasing your chances of developing allergies, rashes, or even contracting a more serious infection.
The best way to reduce the risks and go back to enjoying your time in the shower? Make sure your setup enables your bath towels to dry out quickly after they’re used. A stand-up or wall-mounted rack is more effective than a set of hooks on the back of the door. And if your bathroom is particularly humid, it’s a good idea to toss all of the towels in the dryer once everybody in the house has showered. After you’ve used the towels three or four times, you should wash them in hot water (with chlorine bleach for white towels). Then, dry on high to kill any remaining bacteria.
12. Handbags, gym bags, and backpacks
Do you and your family walk in the door and immediately drop your bags on the dining room table or the kitchen counter? Don’t. Reynolds reported that most bags have tens of thousands of bacteria on the bottom alone. Some of them even have millions. Think about all the places that your bag has been. You can probably imagine why your family’s bags are such a hot spot for germs and bacteria.
Reynolds recommended misting sturdy bags with a fabric-sanitizing spray weekly. Alternately, you can throw them in the washing machine if they’re machine-washable. You can clean vinyl bags with regular disinfecting wipes. And if you have a leather bag, clean it with a product that’s specially formulated for leather. When you’re carrying your bag around throughout the day, try to be cognizant of where you’re setting it down.
13. Pet bed
Given NSF’s germ counts for all of your pet’s other possessions, it’s probably not too surprising Reynolds placed the pet bed as one of the germiest spots in your house. Hundreds of germs, MRSA, and fecal matter are probably hanging out on that plush bed with your dog or cat. And that’s to say nothing of dirt, pollen, dander, and dead skin cells. It’s no wonder that germs can grow quickly on the pet bed’s soft surface.
You probably wash your bedding pretty frequently, so just get in the habit of doing the same thing for your pet. Reynolds said once per week you should remove the cover from the pet bed and wash it in hot water. Then, dry it on high heat. If the cover doesn’t come off of the pet bed you have, mist the entire bed with a sanitizing spray.
14. Handles and switches
Better Homes and Gardens reported all kinds of dirt and germs can lurk in unexpected spots around your home. One of the worst? Handles and switches, which are touched frequently but probably cleaned very infrequently. The refrigerator door handle, the toilet flush handle, and commonly used light switches are a few of the usual culprits. And unfortunately, they often get overlooked even when you’re cleaning because you’re probably focused on bigger surfaces, such as countertops or the toilet.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to get in the habit of cleaning handles and switches as part of your regular cleaning routine. Better Homes and Gardens recommended using a microfiber cloth dampened with your favorite cleaning product to wipe down handles and switches as you go about your household cleaning.
You head to the bathtub to get clean. But chances are good that your bathtub isn’t quite as pristine as you might assume. If any standing water stays in the bathtub after you get out of the shower or the bath, that’s the perfect breeding ground for mold, fungi, and even staph.
The best way to reduce the growth of bacteria is to dry off the surface of the tub or shower after each use. You should also disinfect the tub regularly, as often as three times each week for tubs that are used daily by multiple people. Just fill a spray bottle with a cleaning product that contains at least 3% hydrogen peroxide. Lightly mist it on a dry tub, and let the solution evaporate. And if you have a whirlpool tub make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions monthly to cycle disinfectant through the system.