You don't eat on your toilet seat, but did you know your bathroom is probably not the germiest place in your house? In fact, that sponge you used to clean your plate is loaded with far more germs than the bathroom doorknob. Let's take a look at which parts of your house may be home to the most bacteria.
A comprehensive 2011 study by NSF International (an independent public health organization) looked at different parts of the house to see which spots tend to harbor the most germs. While most study respondents thought the bathroom was for sure the dirtiest spot in the house (hello, it's where you go to the bathroom), the survey found some yucky stuff well outside the throne room.
Surprise — your kitchen is actually a hotbed of germs. NSF found a ton of coliform on several kitchen surfaces. Coliform is a family of bacteria that includes such lovelies as E. coli and salmonella, and its presence can indicate fecal contamination (yes, that's poop).
The biggest culprit in the kitchen — and really, the whole house — is the dish sponge or rag, which contains harmful bacteria in 71 percent of houses. Other top offenders include:
- Kitchen sink: 45 percent
- Countertop: 32 percent
- Cutting board: 18 percent
- Stove knobs: 14 percent
- Refrigerator handle: 9 percent
- Lunch box: 9 percent
Yes, that says lunch box — sorry. According to Dr. Ivan Ong, VP of research and development at Microban, the kitchen sponge is definitely the worst offender for a number of reasons. "It is very hard to properly clean a sponge (putting sponges in a dishwasher or microwaving them are not wholly effective)," he says.
Ong explains the best practice is to use separate sponges for different reasons (clean containers that have held raw meat with one sponge, and use a completely different one for doing the rest of your dishes). He also notes that it's important to throw them away and bring out new ones often — at least every two weeks, if not weekly.
On the other hand, the bathroom is indeed a sweet spot for potential fecal contamination, which isn't shocking. But the study found far fewer fecal germs there than in your kitchen, which is, of course, where you prepare food and eat.
The biggest offender in the bathroom was the toothbrush holder, which contains harmful bacteria in 27 percent of homes. Others include:
- Bathroom faucet handle: 9 percent
- Toilet seat: 5 percent (that's less than your lunch box!)
- Bathroom doorknob: 5 percent
- Bathroom light switch: 5 percent
Some things, like personal items, also racked up the germ specs. Your computer keyboard is right up there with the kitchen sponge, and is found crawling with bacteria in 68 percent of homes. The worst offenders are:
- Video game controller: 59 percent
- Pet toy: 55 percent
- Remote control: 55 percent
- Car door handle: 41 percent
- Bottom of your purse: 36 percent
And yes, all of these have higher contaminant amounts than anything found within the hallowed walls of your bathroom.
So, what's next?
Faced with these startling facts, does that mean you need to go all Mr. Clean over every single surface in your home 24-7 to prevent getting sick? Probably not according to Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who notes that every environment on the planet teems with microbial life, most of which cause no harm and is beneficial.
"The quest for sterility in everyday life is futile and misguided," he points out. "Kitchens, bathrooms, garages and every nook and cranny are home to germs and any quantitative difference is really not meaningful or useful."
This sentiment is not unique among health professionals. Wendie Howland, a legal nurse consultant and life care planner (and owner of Howland Health Consulting), says modern Americans don't really need to immaculately clean to prevent illness. She says it's important to wash our hands to cut down on bacteria and virus transmission, and of course we should observe basic principles of food safety to prevent food-borne illnesses, but beyond that, she has different advice.
Howland explains it doesn't pay to stress about frantically cleaning our environments. "It’s foolish to worry about handling money, taking off your shoes before you come into the house, washing your laundry with hot water and bleach or keeping your kids off the floor when they roll around and play with the licking dog," she explains. "Obviously, you don’t want your kids splashing in the toilet or getting into the cat litter box — cat feces can carry a parasite but it won’t hurt humans unless they’re immunosuppressed, but still. Otherwise… chill out. Really."
The bottom line
So change your dish sponge on the regular because it's gross (or use a rag and swap it out every time you do the dishes) and make sure you clean your house when it's dirty, but unless you or someone in your family has a compromised immune system, take the above findings with a grain of salt and try to stop worrying about the multitude of germs that are, well, everywhere.