From your phone to your beard, these surprising things are crawling with everything from e. coli to the flu virus.
K. Aleisha Fetters 1 / 11
If walking around in a full HAZMAT suit wouldn’t be a complete blow to your social life, we’d fully recommend it.
Wanting to find out what common items are particularly germy, as well as which ones are actually dangerous and which ones are just gross, albeit harmless (they can’t all be man-killers, right?) we called up top microbiologists, combed through some studies, and collectively gagged.
Poop particles—not to mention fungus, mold, and plenty of other bodily secretions—are everywhere. Read on to discover the 10 nastiest things you’ve probably touched today.
All aesthetics aside, guys everywhere need to start upping their beard-grooming game. “If a beard isn’t well taken care of, it can be a repository for various organisms,” says Charles P. Gerba, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona. While the bulk of those organisms—from dead cheek skin cells, sweat, food, your girlfriend’s lips—won’t hurt you, if you’re a beard-toucher, they could potentially cause diarrhea, dehydration, fever, and even kidney issues. After all, when reporters with Action 7 News in Albuquerque, New Mexico, recently swabbed local men’s whiskers, some of them tested positive for bacteria from fecal matter. The culprit: Not washing your hands well enough after going number-two or touching something with E. coli on it (see numbers 2 through 10) and then touching your face.
Every time you hop onto your bed, you release from your bedding a microscopic cloud of human skin cells, dust mites and their poop, fungal mold, insect parts, pollen, and “bodily secretions from every portal of your body,” says Philip Tierno, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and pathology at the NYU School of Medicine. That’s because all of these things can get trapped in your pillows, mattress, and even box springs, thanks to gravity, and fester for years and decades on end, he says. Apart from making between-the-sheets romps seem a whole lot less sexy, all of those organisms can cause allergic symptoms like a headache and stuffy nose. Your move: Keep your pillows, mattress, and box springs in impervious covers so that nothing can get in or out of them. Put your regular sheets over them, and then aim to wash your sheets every week and those covers a couple of times a year, he says.
Talk about appetizing: When Gerba swabbed coffee cup lids from local coffee shops, he found that about 20 percent of them were contaminated with E. coli from fecal feces. All poo aside, he also found Noro virus, which causes diarrhea and is typically called “the stomach flu,” as well as the cold and flu virus, on the coffee lids. The organisms are probably from both restaurant workers and customers handling them. “Every time I’m at a coffee shop, I use a tissue or napkin to get a lid from the center of stack. Usually those are the cleanest ones,” he says. Baristas probably hate it, but oh well.
It’s not a germaphobe myth: Your toilet really can splatter germs onto your toothbrush, Tierno says. While low-flow toilets do limit how far every flush sends poo particles throughout your bathroom, it’s still best to keep your toothbrush in a drawer or medicine cabinet, but don’t go so far as to get a toothbrush head cover. Those can actually trap moisture on your toothbrush so that any germs that are present on your toothbrush—whether from poop or just plaque—grow into a pathogenic colony. Replace your toothbrush every three to four months to cut down on bacteria. And, please, close the toilet lid before you flush.
“No one ever cleans these and it shows,” Gerba says. In one University of London study, researchers found E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus, a common bacterium that lives on skin but can cause prove fatal if it reaches your bloodstream through any scratches or open wounds on your skin, on 16 and 25 percent of phones, respectively. Worth noting: they found about the same bacteria on the phone-owners’ hands. Gerba recommends rubbing your phone down every day with an alcohol-containing wipe.
“ATMs are grossly contaminated,” Gerba says. “When you walk up to a machine, you have to remember that hundreds of people have touched it before you, and it is probably not washed routinely.” For instance, one study from a New Zealand cleaning product company found that ATMs were dirtier than public toilets, and one Washington DC news station collected more than 1,400 bacteria and viruses in a single swab of Union Station's ATMs. Gerba’s recommendation: As soon as you get your cash, use a hand sanitizer or wash your hands.
With most shoes, whatever you walk through stays on the sole of the shoes. With flip-flops, it ends up all over the shoe—and your foot. And when the New York Daily News had two reporters wear flip-flops for four days and then send them to the lab, they came back positive for about 18,000 germs, including bacteria from both human and animal fecal matter, urine, and vomit. They even harbored potentially deadly Staphylococcus aureus. If you’re a flip-flop wearer, make sure to take your sandals off and wash your hands and feet as soon as you get home, Tierno says. Otherwise, you’ll spread those germs everywhere.
Before you worry about how your favorite restaurant fared during its latest health inspection, you might want to throw out your kitchen sponge. It turns out, thanks to kitchen sponges, more foodborne illnesses such as E. coli and salmonella come from home cooking than from restaurant food. “Kitchen sponges are one of the biggest sources of contamination in people, and the single dirtiest thing in any home,” says Gerba. Think about it: you use that sponge to get raw chicken juices off of your cutting board, scrub used plates, scour the sink (the drain is also disgusting, by the way) and then you use it to make the countertops clean, or at least look that way. Between scrub sessions, Gerba recommends soaking your sponge in a bowl of bleach water. It’s really the only way to zap anything that’s calling your sponge home.
OK, so has anyone in the history of public transit ever thought that buses and trains were clean? Doubtful. But, they deserve a special mention for their germs’ ability to make you sick—so much so that if you take public transit, your odds of catching a cold are six times greater, according to research from the University of Nottingham. And when researchers with the San Francisco State University’s biology lab inspected a random BART seat, they found antibiotic-resistant fecal and skin-borne bacteria. If you’re taking a bus, especially during cold and flu season, make sure to disinfect your hands with a gel sanitizer the second you step off of the bus, Gerba says.
Channel surfers, beware: remote controls love to harbor bacteria. While, at home, only a couple of people handle and infect the remote on a day-to-day basis (no biggie), if you have guests, or worse, children, over, and they imprint it with their germs, too you probably should wipe it down with an antiseptic cleaner, Gerba says. Spending the night in a hotel? Don’t even attempt to get that remote clean. Grab it with a paper towel and drop it into a baggie, he says. Or, if you want to be a little more formal about it, you can buy a remote cover online.