Getting the Dirt on Germs

We live with germs on the inside and outside. Some keep us healthy; some make us sick. Here's where disease-causing germs may be hiding.

Invisible to the naked eye, germs are all around on everything from light switches to the lemon in your drinking water.  Germs are everywhere. What can you do?

If germs are all around us, why aren’t we sick all the time? The short answer is because not all germs are harmful.

The number-one germiest place in your house is your HANDS. Since 80 percent of infections are spread through hand contact, they receive the award. Wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth unless your hands are clean. You can ensure clean hands with proper handwashing technique. Try singing "Happy Birthday" twice as you wash your hands with warm soapy water.

Hand sanitizers are great germ-fighters on the go when water isn’t available, but hand washing with good old fashioned soap and water was six times more effective preventing disease outbreaks, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Also, knowing where the most harmful germs may lurk in your home can help you stay well and minimize your risk of transmitting colds, flu, diarrhea and other illnesses. This knowledge can help you develop a healthy respect for germs without becoming germaphobic.

Here are some places where harmful germs may be hiding:


Bathroom Items

Covered toothbrush holders make perfect Petri-dishes for germs. Wash them on the top rack of the dishwasher or soak them in one part bleach to three parts water, rinse and air dry.

The bathtub. It’s ironic that the place we go to get clean can be teeming with up to 100,000 organisms such as staphylococcus (staph) bacteria. Disinfecting your tub can assure you that you’re bathing alone.

The shower curtain or liner creates the perfect habitat for mold and mildew, especially if the shower curtain is pulled back and creates folds. You can easily eliminate shower curtain germs by washing your shower curtain or liner in your washing machine and pulling the curtain straight across the tub after each use.

The laundry basket carries all your dirty clothes to the washing machine and carries all your clean clothes from the dryer. If you use a cloth laundry bag, use two. One for the dirty laundry which you should pop into the wash and one for your clean clothes. If you use a plastic basket, clean it with a color-safe disinfectant after emptying.

The bath mat keeps you from slipping as it grips the floor. It may also be hanging onto germs. The bathroom floor usually has more germs than other floors in your home. That combined with the sometimes steamy, moist nature of the bathroom, makes the floor area under your bathmat a great place for germs to reproduce. To enforce a little population control, you should wash fabric bathmats often according to manufacturer’s instructions or spritz wooden or rubber mats with disinfectant at least once a week to keep them fresh. It is important to wash and disinfect your floor often as well to minimize germ growth.

Personal Use Items

Cosmetics, toothbrushes and contact lens cases are a few personal items that have the potential to be home to colonies of germs.

Each tube or jar of your makeup, lotion or lipstick can house a different family of germs. It is important to replace your cosmetics once in a while to prevent illness. A recommended schedule is to replace eye makeup every season, replace lotions, foundations and creams every six months, and replace nail polish and lipstick every year or two.

Contact cases are often teeming with germs. It’s important to wipe out your contact case after each use. Contact cases should be cleaned in boiling water or replaced every month. Your eyes will thank you.

Your toothbrush of course is captures with bacteria from your mouth; that’s its job. But if your toothbrush is sitting on the bathroom counter less than six feet from the toilet, that might not be the only bacteria lurking in the bristles. There could be a few drops of toilet spray if the lid was not closed before flushing.

To minimize contamination from the flush, store your toothbrush in a cupboard or as far away from the toilet as possible. Remember, closing the lid before flushing will reduce the toilet spray on all surfaces in your bathroom.

The American Dental Association also recommends rinsing your toothbrush after brushing and allowing it to air dry. They also recommend replacing toothbrushes every three or four months. 

Headphones may be tossed in your purse, your computer case or your gym bag. Those little buds can pick up more than the bacteria from your ears; they can pick up a multitude of germs from other surfaces. If your headphones have removable rubber nubbins, take them off and soak them in a mild vinegar solution for 15 minutes. If your headphones are one piece, wipe the plastic coating down with mild soap and water. Brush the grills with a clean toothbrush to brush away bacteria.

Purses and handbags. Studies have found tens of thousands of bacteria that may cause eye and skin infections, along with salmonella and E. coli on purses and handbags. Don’t forget the inside of your purse can carry unpleasant microbes along with snacks, gum and makeup. Find a suitable cleaner for your purse and then wipe it down or disinfect it every few days.

We don’t often think about keys when we think of cleaning. It’s a good thing their metallic nature makes them naturally resistant to germs. It is still a good idea to clean keys once in a while. Simply wash them once and while with soap and water.


Your coffee maker may give you a little mold, mildew and bacteria with your morning brew. Clean your coffee maker with vinegar according to the manufacturer’s manual.

Take a look at your can opener blade. Often it is an overlooked area when it comes to cleaning. Since the blade often touches the food in the can when it cuts through the metal, it is a good idea to keep the blade clean. It’s easy. Carefully wiping the blade or popping the can opener in the dishwasher will take care of it.

Spatulas and other cooking utensils are great areas for germs to grow. Ecoli, salmonella and other food-borne bacteria may hide between the head of the utensil and the handle. Many spatula heads can be removed and washed in the sink or the dishwasher.

Salt and pepper shakers are used while cooking and eating. Imagine enjoying a fried chicken dinner with Uncle Fred. Even though he wipes his hands on his napkin, bacteria may remain as he reaches for the salt shaker. Be safe, wash and disinfect after each meal to reduce germs.

Refrigerator handlers, cabinet pulls, and kitchen counters are germ magnets. Bacteria and viruses can live on these surfaces. Make sure these surfaces are clean before you cook, while you cook, and always disinfect after cooking to prevent salmonella, E. coli bacteria or viruses from spreading.

Refrigerator drawers and ice makers should be washed with warm soapy water occasionally to stop bacteria growth. While the cooler temperatures slow bacteria growth, it does not prevent it. Pay special attention to your vegetable and meat drawers.

Faucet handles may be crawling with germs. People often turn faucet handles with dirty hands. Clean and disinfect your faucet handles often.

Blender blades and gaskets can often be disassembled and washed after use. If you make smoothies before work and time is of the essence, fill your sink with hot soapy water and disassemble your blade in the water. Wash, rinse and set your blender parts aside and let them air dry as you run out the door.

Cutting boards can transfer germs from raw meat to the salad. It’s a good idea to designate a cutting board for meat and another one for produce. Wash plastic boards in the dishwasher or microwave wooden boards to kill germs; dry completely before storing. Replace cutting boards that have deep nicks or scratches.

Sponges are veritable hot houses for bacteria growth, making them one of the germiest items in your home. Sponges pick up germs easily and spread them from place to place as they are used to wipe down surfaces. Since anti-bacterial soaps may not always be effective in killing salmonella or E. coli, soak your sponge in bleach or put it in the microwave for two minutes to kill harmful bacteria.


Laundry and towels supply moisture and food to create fertile breeding grounds for bacteria, including staph. Reduce your risk by drying clothing and towels completely between use and wash them in the hottest water allowable once a week. Don’t wear clothes or use towels that smell sour; that smell may be caused by gasses given off by multiplying bacteria.


Sheets and pillows that collect dead skin, sweat and drool throughout the night are perfect beds for germs and dust mites to grow. To reduce your exposure to bed-borne allergens, cover your pillows with anti-allergen covers. If the manufacturer’s instructions allow, you can wash all bedding in hot water with a bit of bleach to kill bacteria in the material.

It’s a given that toys in the children’s room will probably have more than a few germs on them. To minimize the risk of your child getting sick, wipe down the hard-surfaced toys with non-toxic disinfecting wipes or put them in the dishwasher for a quick disinfection bath. Stuffed toys can be tossed into the washer every three weeks or so and then dried for 45 minutes on high heat.

Living Room

Your carpet or rugs may be teaming with germs from shoes, pets or children. Vacuuming three or four times a week will remove the majority of germs from the surface. Steam cleaning carpets every three months will kill germs below the surface.

Germs on the go

Hand sanitizers are great germ-fighters on the go... but hand washing with soap and water is six times more effective


How many germs are at work in your office? According to a study by Kimberly-Clark Professional, the number may be higher than you think. Researchers measured the level of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in office workspaces.

According to the study, researchers found ATP readings over 300, which indicates a high risk of illness, on break room sink faucet handles, microwave door handles, keyboards, refrigerator door handles, water fountain buttons, and vending machine buttons.

Other places in your office that may offer germ exposure are:

A hand shake offered as a sign of goodwill may make you quite ill if someone is sporting a cold or the flu. If you have a cold or the flu, simply explain your condition to the person you are meeting and they will gladly forego the handshake and probably thank you for your consideration.

The office bathroom presents you with a high risk of germ exposure. Not everyone in your office practices good hygiene, so when you grab the door handle on the way out of the bathroom, you may be grasping the germs of the person in front of you who neglected to wash his or her hands.

Elevator buttons are touched by a multitude of people during the day, especially in hospitals or other health care centers. Many germ conscious people use their elbows or head for the washroom after riding the elevator.

Pens shared by co-workers or strangers can transfer bacteria, viruses and the flu from person to person. If your desk is visited by co-workers who sometimes need a pen, you can have a pen holder stocked and ready for public use, but have a private pen available just for you.

Your desktop holds your pens, pencils and papers that have often been handled by other people. Your desk also occasionally holds your lunch. Mix those germs together and then transfer them to your hands and mouth as you eat and you risk getting sick.

Coffee pot handles and staplers, phones, conference-room chairs and copy machines have been touched by many people in your office. They have the potential to spread disease if people with colds, flu or poor hygiene have touched them first.


The plastic surfaces of weight machines and workout mats combined with sweat create a healthy environment for bacteria growth, especially antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus (MRSA). MRSA has been found on yoga mats and cardio and resistance machines in the gym and on high school wrestling mats.

MRSA can cause serious infection in some people. Community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA) as opposed to Hospital-associated MRSA (HA-MRSA) seems to spread more easily from person-to-person. MRSA may enter the body through a cut or scrape. Signs of the infection may look like a pimple or a spider bite. If an area appears infected, seek medical attention. Most people with healthy immune systems are able to handle the infection. However, there have been cases where MRSA resulted in serious infections such as pneumonia and blood stream infections that resulted in shortness of breath, fever, illness and even death.

To reduce your risk of exposure to MRSA or other germs, wipe workout machines down with antibacterial wipes before using and bring your own workout mats. Always shower after a workout, soaping up your skin to remove bacteria. Be especially careful if you have scrapes or scratches on your skin.

The gym shower. Always remember to take flip-flops or other foot protection to prevent athlete’s foot.

Your gym bag is packed and ready go in case you can sneak in a workout ... but it also may be ready to sneak you an infection. How often do you wash or disinfect your gym bag?

Gym bags are often stuffed with sweaty clothes from your workout that have been exposed to a myriad of germs at the gym along with sweaty sneakers. Since gym bags are often water resistant, when the germs, sweat and material are zipped up and placed in your trunk, germs have a veritable field day.

To reduce your risk of infection, disinfect the inside and the outside of your gym bag. Open it up and let it air out. Then, the next time you go to the gym take a sealable plastic bag along for your sweaty clothes and sneakers. Using a plastic bag also has the added benefit of keeping your gym bag smelling fresh.

Your water bottle 
is great for hydration and great for coliform growth. Coliform can coat the inside of plastic water bottles if they are not cleaned correctly. In fact, a Canadian study entitled Bacterial water quality in the personal water bottles of elementary students found coliform levels so high that the study resulted in a recommendation to discontinue the use of water bottles by elementary children.

If you choose to use a water bottle, choose one that has a wider mouth that is easier to clean. You may also want to consider a water bottle made out of stainless steel or other non-porous material. Wash and dry your water bottle daily. Once a week, soak the bottle in bleach for two or three minutes, rinse and allow to air dry completely.

On the Go

Shopping cart handles can be a hotbed of germs courtesy of saliva, e-coli and fecal matter that are often found on the them. Fortunately, many grocery stores have antibacterial wipes just inside the door to wipe them down.

You may be carrying more than groceries home in your reusable shopping bags. Salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli on raw fruits and vegetables or meat packages may contaminate the bag. Disinfect your shopping bags often to reduce exposure.

ATM buttons may have more bacteria on them than you’ll find in most public restrooms. ATM buttons are rarely cleaned and are often touched by people who have recently touched money. To reduce your risk, carry a hand sanitizer in your car and use it after you’ve touched ATM buttons and the money that you take from the machine.


When you visit a hotel, make sure you only take pleasant memories home with you.

Light switches, remotes, coffee pots, ice buckets and glass bathroom glasses all have the potential to make you sick. A good rule to follow when you go to a hotel is to go armed with antibacterial wipes. Upon entering your room, wipe down the light switches, sink handles, remotes and other surfaces that you will use.

You may also want to wash out the coffee pot, ice bucket and any glassware before you use them. These items may not have been transported to the kitchen for a run through the dishwasher between guests. Sometimes they are just wiped down with a cleaning rag.

Also, if the guest before you had a go-round with the flu, the coffee pot or the ice bucket may have been used in an emergency.


You’ve been waiting all week to go to your favorite restaurant. Now, it’s finally happening.

You sit down with the menu before you and order your favorite dish. But before you take one bite, you might want to excuse yourself and go freshen up and wash your hands. That menu may be one of the three germiest places in the restaurant...right along with the restaurant seat or chair and...surprisingly is the lemon slice that was plopped your water glass.

Dirty? Yes. Dangerous? No.

Here are four germy places to maintain but not worry about.

  1. Your sink drains may be home to 500,000 bacteria or more per square inch, but it does not pose much of a threat since you do not touch it often.
  2. Your toilet seat may actually have fewer germs than your kitchen counter. It usually is disinfected often and not used for food prep.
  3. The bottoms of your shoes have germs, but not to worry – we don’t normally eat or cook on our floors.
  4. The layer of dust on the top of your cabinets or woodwork may be teeming with germs, but they are not likely to cause illness unless you suffer with asthma.

Are all bacteria bad?

Not all bacteria are bad. Good bacteria live in our intestines and help us use the nutrients in the food we eat and create waste from what’s left over. Yogurt contains bacteria that keeps the yeast in our bodies in check. Some bacteria are also used by scientists in labs to produce medicine and vaccines. 

Germs: What are they?

The term "germ" actually refers to any microorganism, including viruses, bacteria and fungi. 

Viruses are tiny, simple organisms that need to attach to other living cells to grow and reproduce. A virus reproduces and colonizes itself inside the cell until the cell bursts and releases the virus to infect more cells. Viruses like the flu may survive up to 24 hours on hard surfaces. Viruses nullify the 5-second rule, it only takes an instant for viruses to attach to anything.

Bacteria are one-celled living organisms that can reproduce on their own. They like warm, moist conditions. Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, although overuse can lead to resistant strains. Bacteria, like salmonella, can live on surfaces for up to four weeks.

Fungi are multi-celled organisms that live in warm, damp places and feed on plants and animals. Fungi can be helpful for making bread rise or composting trash, or they can be harmful like athlete’s foot, ring worm or mold. Fungi can live up to 15 months on surfaces.

7 Ways to Reduce Your Risk

  • Wash your hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom. E. coli bacteria from fecal matter can survive on hands and surfaces for hours. Washing your hands will also help prevent mobile phone contamination of viral infections like the norovirus, rotavirus and the flu.
  • Wipe your phone down with a disinfectant once or twice a day. ALWAYS check with your phone’s manufacturer for the best cleaning product and method so you do not damage your cell phone screen. Some household cleaner manufacturers also offer a line of cleaners specifically for electronic devices.
  • Be careful where you place your phone. When your cell phone touches money in your purse, the table of a restaurant or the counter of at a department store, it picks up germs.
  • Don’t share your phone with others.
  • Don’t take your cell phone to the gym.
  • Don’t use your phone in the bathroom.
  • Use a Bluetooth or other hands-free device to minimize keyboard-to-face-contact.