Pop quiz: What's the dirtiest nook in your home?
If you thought somewhere in the bathroom, get ready to guess again. Research from the public health organization NSF International revealed the "germiest" areas of 22 average homes. The exposé revealed that, contrary to conventional washroom wisdom, most bacteria are actually concentrated in the kitchen.
It's an eye-opening revelation, especially if you have little ones at home. The kitchen is the heart of most houses, and combatting those (or any!) germs is vital for reducing stress on kids' still-developing immune systems. Plus, some of these pathogens are responsible for a whole slew of common diseases, including strep throat, food poisoning, and meningitis.
But as parents, we also know there's a fine line to walk if we want to wipe out "bad" bacteria without sacrificing the "good," too. Most bacteria are harmless, and the healthy varieties are even essential to our survival. They help us absorb nutrients, and in some cases, produce vitamins to stave off bad bacteria from preying on our systems. And ironically, the overuse of anti-bacterial substances can actually promote the spread of resistant harmful bacteria.
The trick, then, is to eliminate destructive pathogens without simultaneously destroying all the health-boosting bacteria. Here's how to tackle the typically germiest areas with safe, effective practices:
What exactly is lurking in your sponge? The NSF study revealed that over 75% of dish sponges and rags in sampled households contained some version of coliform. (Coliform is a family of bacteria whose strains include salmonella and E. coli.) Additionally, a whopping 86% of these tested kitchen staples contained mold, which is often problematic for individuals with allergies.
The well-known microwave-cleaning technique, in which a sponge is microwaved for one minute on high, may actually fall short of its hype. One study found a strong presence of potentially-infectious Moraxella osloensis lingering even after routine disinfection. If anyone in your home has a compromised immune system, it's recommended you replace your sponges frequently, even weekly.
Whatever you decide for your sponge's lifespan, do keep it sanitary on a day-to-day basis. Avoid using it to clean up food leftovers, like meat juices or dirt from produce. Use a paper towel and Puracy Multi-Surface Cleaner for those tasks instead. Let the sponge air out between uses, since bacteria have a harder time multiplying in dry conditions.
To keep your kitchen rag clean, launder it on the hottest setting of your washer, and make sure to dry completely (also on high) before reusing. Keep hand towels apart from dish towels. And when possible, let your dishes air dry, rather than towel drying them.
Another surprising top coliform contender is the kitchen sink, with 45% of households harboring the bacteria in their sink basin.
Cleaning the sink on a daily basis will prevent germs from spreading. To do so, first rinse the sink out with hot water. Scrub with sufficient baking soda to coat the surface, and spray with either a multi-purpose cleaner or equal parts water and distilled white vinegar. Then wipe with a clean, designated rag or paper towel.
Reusing rags, sponges, or hand towels to clean kitchen countertops is common practice. It also, unfortunately, spreads germs and bacteria across multiple surfaces—which is probably why countertops were a germ hot zone in 32% of homes tested by NSF International.
The next time you wipe down your countertops, don't reach for the sponge to complement your multi-surface spray. Opt instead for microfiber cloths that can be washed between uses, or single-use paper towels.
During food prep, be extra conscientious of cross-contamination: 18% of tested cutting boards were shown to harbor coliform.
Color coding cutting boards is an easy way to separate any raw meat boards from, say, designated produce boards. And to keep any cutting board sanitary, wash it with hot and soapy water after each use; then rinse with clear, hot water, and let air dry.
In the long run, consider investing in wooden cutting boards over plastic. Research shows wooden cutting boards hold onto less salmonella than plastic ones.
The dirtiest spot in the bathroom might not even be where you think it is; the top culprit in the NSF study was actually the humble toothbrush holder. 27% of homes were hosting coliform right alongside their brushes, and 14% contained staphylococcus aureus (staph).
To reduce the "ick" factor in this morning and evening necessity, immerse your toothbrush holder in equal parts white vinegar and water for 1-2 minutes. Scrub with a brush or pipe cleaner, rinse under hot water, and let the holder air dry. Repeat weekly, or as needed.
Only 9% of homes had coliform in this presumably vulnerable spot. This is likely due to the fact that—as NSF points out—cold, smooth surfaces are hostile breeding grounds for germs.
But keeping your bathroom faucet handles sanitary and shiny is still a good idea. To do so, avoid cleaning with a scouring pad or other abrasive material. Instead, use a rag to wipe down the faucet with dish soap and water. Dampen some paper towels with vinegar, wrap them around the faucet, and leave for 10 minutes before wiping down with plain water and drying. Follow up with a thin coat of baby oil to stave off water spots from forming.
We all know these mobile blocks are basically extensions of our hands, and they have the germs to match. Some research has qualified cell phones as 10 times dirtier than a typical toilet seat.
Once again, vinegar comes to the rescue. Dampen a microfiber cloth with a 50-50 mix of water and white vinegar. Gently wipe your phone with the cloth (don't spray the concoction directly on your phone!). Use the dry corners of the cloth to wipe off any excess liquid.
Between accumulated pet dander, pizza nights in front of the TV, and everyday usage, most carpets see a lot of action. This can translate into as much as 200,000 bacteria per square inch.
Other potentially germy surfaces range from video game controllers and remote controls to pet toys. But since every home and family is different, needs and routines will vary. By maintaining low-impact, habitual practices, you'll be able to keep bacteria hotspots cleaner and safer for your family.