You've worked hard to make your house a beautiful, peaceful haven — but even super-tidy homes can harbor unwelcome germs. In fact, "you're more likely to get sick from a germ in your own house than from any other source," says Kelly A. Reynolds, PhD, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona. But, not to worry: We've tracked down these germs and come up with simple strategies to get rid of them. Here, 10 places in your home, ranked from most to least germy by a team of experts, and easy ways to keep them clean — and keep you healthy.
Kitchen sink, countertop and sponges
There are lots of places for germs to hang out in the kitchen, including the drain in your sink (typically home to more than 500,000 bacteria per square inch), the countertop (a welcome mat for food crumbs and meat juices), and the sponges, rags, scrubbers and towels you use for cleaning (roughly 70 percent harbor microbes like E. coli, the bacteria responsible for most urinary tract infections). But for every germy hot spot in the kitchen, there's a smart and simple way to clean up.
Simple fix: After you rinse or cook food, clean the sink, counters and faucet with soap and water or an antibacterial cleanser. (Water washes germs away. A cleanser with bleach kills the germs.) It's tempting to leave your cleaning implement — a damp rag or sponge — hanging around to use the next day, but that could create a germ breeding ground, says Michael G. Schmidt, PhD, professor and vice chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina. Instead, sanitize your sponge or brush in the dishwasher and your dishrags in the washing machine. To really disinfect the sink and drain, clean them twice a week with a solution of one tablespoon of bleach and one quart of water: Scrub the basin, then pour the solution down the drain.
Your cutting boards
Before you start chopping, it's wise to make sure you're 100 percent up on the danger of food contaminants. Pathogens that can hide in foods like leafy greens, potatoes and berries — three of the 10 riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — are thought to be responsible for 20,000 illnesses since 1990, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Washing your food before eating removes some germs, of course, and cooking meat kills dangerous bacteria like salmonella. And you probably know it's smart to chop meats and veggies on separate boards. Still, almost 25 percent of food-sickness outbreaks are the result of kitchen mistakes, such as using contaminated cutting boards, according to Donna Rosenbaum, executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority, a nonprofit food-safety organization.
Simple fix: After washing all your fruits and veggies well, use your senses to help guide you. "We can't see microbes but we can sometimes smell and feel them," Schmidt says. If your food doesn't smell or feel right, throw it out. As for your cutting board, use glass or plastic, both of which are nonporous and most resistant to germs, says Laura Dellutri of HealthyHousekeeper.com and author of Speed Cleaning 101. When you're done with the board, wash it in hot, soapy water, and then spray it with a mixture of one teaspoon of bleach to 16 ounces of water that you keep in a clearly labeled spray bottle, Dellutri says. Finally, rinse the cutting board again with hot water or toss it in the dishwasher. Got a beat-up board? Replace it. Bacteria can hide in a cutting board with lots of knife-cut indentations.
An icky fact: There's a tenth of a gram of feces hiding in every pair of underwear, and washing doesn't always remove it all. That means you can get E. coli on your hands every time you transfer underwear from the washer to the dryer, says Charles Gerba, PhD, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona. And a single soiled undergarment can spread those dangerous bacteria to the whole load.
The dirty truth about shopping carts
Nov. 12, 2008: TODAY consumer correspondent Janice Lieberman gets all the dirty details on the filth that lurks on shopping carts.
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Simple fix: Think 150 degrees, the temperature at which you should run your washer and dryer, to kill bacteria. "Most organisms die in the drying cycle," Reynolds says. Wash underwear separately, and wash whites with bleach, which kills 99.99 percent of bugs. Transfer wet laundry to the dryer quickly so germs don't multiply; dry for at least 45 minutes (or until the load is fully dry). Wash your hands after doing laundry, and run a cycle of bleach and water after laundering unmentionables to eliminate any lingering germs.
The human mouth contains about 100 million microbes per milliliter of saliva, Schmidt says. Those microbes eat the same food you do, and when you brush, food particles and bacteria stick to your toothbrush. The unhappy result: an overgrowth of germs on your brush.
Simple fix: After brushing, rinse your toothbrush with hot water and stand it up in a water glass to air-dry, says Margaret Lewin, MD, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Cornell University and medical director of the insurance company Cinergy Health. Don't lay it on the counter, where it can gather other bathroom germs, and don't store it in a travel case, where bacteria can thrive in the moisture. You can even clean your toothbrush in the dishwasher once in a while.
Every time you take a bath or shower, you remove germs and viruses from your body. That's the great news. But all the bad stuff doesn't conveniently slide down the drain or die on the porcelain; some of it thrives if those surfaces stay moist. In fact, researcher Elizabeth Scott, PhD, co-director of the Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons College in Boston, found staphylococcus bacteria, a common cause of serious skin infections, in 26 percent of the tubs she tested, compared with just 6 percent of garbage cans.
Simple fix: Use a disinfecting cleanser once a week on the bathroom floor and sides of the tub and shower; rinse well and dry the surfaces with a towel. Keep the shower dry on a daily basis by using a squeegee, and disinfect the squeegee weekly, too.
Your cell phone and other tech stuff
The things you touch a zillion times a day-iPhone, BlackBerry, keyboard, computer mouse — are big carriers of germs, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and flu viruses.
Simple fix: Clean the surfaces of your phone or other tech devices with a disinfecting product. Any antibacterial wipe will work; just don't get your sensitive equipment too wet.
Get the dirt on the germiest places
Oct. 23, 2007: From the airplane bathroom to your phone, “Health” magazine tells TODAY’s Hoda Kotb the areas that contain nasty bacteria.
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The bathroom floor
Believe it or not, there are more germs on the bathroom floor than on the toilet seat. The problem is flushing, during which microscopic fecal matter is sprayed into the air and lands on the floor, where moisture helps germs grow.
Simple fix: Be sure to close the lid of the toilet before you flush. Also, mop your bathroom floor once a week with a bleach-based cleanser. And clean and dry mats used on your bathroom floor; damp ones help mold and bacteria grow. Hang mats up so they are more likely to dry out between uses, wash them in very hot water weekly, and make sure they're dry before using them again.
Whatever sticks to your shoes comes into your house — irritating pollen during allergy season, pesticide residue from your lawn, lead-contaminated dust.
Simple fix: It's easy to keep the germs and yuck outside. Remove your shoes at the door. Wipe your feet on a high-quality, abrasive doormat. (Clean the mat once a week, too.) Also, consider some eco-friendly ways to keep lawn chemicals outdoors. Try organic lawn sprays and other nonchemical options-from aphid-eating ladybugs to heat (electrocution) for termites; they work pretty well and won't contaminate your home, experts say.
You spend so much time in the bedroom (one-third of your life, actually) that it's no wonder some germs take up residence there. We all shed dead skin cells on the bedding, floor, or bedside table and sometimes toss sweaty clothes into a hamper instead of right into the wash. It's pretty rare, but those skin cells may contain staph. Another potential problem is your damp clothes can grow mold in the hamper. What's more likely, however, is you'll be aggravated by dust mites, those critters that love sheets and mattresses — 20 million people are allergic to them (signs include itchy eyes, a runny nose, even asthma symptoms like wheezing).
Simple fix: To eliminate dust mites and the dead skin cells they eat, wash bedding in hot water at least once a week. Turn up the water heater to a dust mite-killing 130 degrees before you wash, and turn it back down afterward. And consider using an anti-allergy mattress wrap (several are available at AllergyBuyersClub.com), which can keep mite waste from contaminating your air. Wet-mop the floor and clean surfaces with a germ-killing cleanser. And don't let damp clothes sit in a hamper longer than a day.
"In general, dust isn't filled with germs," Schmidt says. "It doesn't have enough moisture." But dust can cover germy surfaces that should be disinfected regularly — and it may contain chemical residue and insect debris, which can trigger asthma and allergies.
Simple fix: Wet-mop floors at least once a week to keep dust to a minimum. And vacuum smarter with a high-quality unit that has a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Vacuum not just floors and carpets but soft furnishings and even counters and bookshelves. Decluttering can help, too, Schmidt says: "If you're into minimalist design, you'll be less prone to dust." Follow vacuuming of hard surfaces by cleaning with an antibacterial wipe or spray.
Copyright 2010 Health Publishing, Inc. From the Health magazine collection. Used by permission. Health is a registered trademark of Health Publishing, Inc.For more stories like this, please visit Health.com.