There’s nothing more inviting than a hotel bed. At home, I consider it a luxury if the bed even gets made with a few flat pillows tossed on top.
A hotel, however, is a magical place where each day I return to a perfectly made bed piled high with blankets and decorative pillows just waiting for me to jump on in. It’s the stuff of dreams—until my husband walks in the room.
“Don’t touch it,” he commands, approaching the bed as if he’s coming in contact with an alien atmosphere. First he removes the duvet, tossing it to the ground so that it won’t come in contact with any of our belongings. Next to go: the pillows, thrown in a corner of the room. Only when the bed has been stripped of all its decadence will he flop down.
“Ahhhh,” he sighs, relaxed and relieved.
My husband is a bit of a germaphobe. Where I see indulgence and luxury, he sees previous guests, their dirty bodies touching everything in the room that is now ours. I’ve always been both amused and a little irritated by his hotel room routine, but it turns out my husband is right: Hotel rooms are downright dirty.
“I’m crazy paranoid in hotel rooms,” says a former housekeeper with eight years of experience cleaning at hotels.
If the professionals tasked with keeping your room clean aren’t convinced that it’s germ free, you shouldn’t be either. And although no one wants to think about how dirty hotel rooms can be, acknowledging the reality might help keep you away from some nasty germs. Even I have to admit that my husband has probably saved me from a virus or two by stripping away all that beautiful bedding.
Cleaners, doctors, and scientists weigh in on the dirtiest parts of hotel rooms, revealing where the germs lurk and how worried we should really be.
1. Freshly made? Not quite…
It might pain me to say it, but my husband is right about the hotel bed. Sheets and pillowcases are changed between guests, but a cleaner who worked for a major hotel brand for two years tells HealthyWay that in her opinion the bed-making standards weren’t high enough.
“The one thing that grossed me out so much was that the brand standard was to not wash the duvets,” she says.
Instead, cleaners put a flat sheet on top and a flat sheet over with the duvet (the cover for the comforter) in the middle. The idea was that the sheets would keep guests from touching the duvet, but anyone who has tossed and turned in bed knows that sheets get tangled easily.
“Someone sleeping in the bed could easily sleep skin to skin with the duvet (I know I had) and not realize it hadn’t been washed for quite some time,” the cleaner reports.
Another cleaner from Massachusetts who worked for a different hotel chain had the same experience.
“If we saw someone mostly slept under the sheets and that the duvet cover wasn’t visibly dirty or did not smell, we didn’t wash them,” she says. Yuck!
2. This is the one place you won’t want to relax on your vacay.
When you’re traveling, taking a long and luxurious bath can seem like the perfect way to unwind at the end of the day. You may want to think twice about that plan, though.
“Hotel baths can be filthy, and unfortunately the tubs are cleaned with mops and other cleaning tools that [have] high levels of bacteria,” says Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, who has an integrative health practice in Miami Beach, Florida.
Women especially want to pay attention, since bathing in a bacteria-filled tub can put them at risk for vaginal infections, Trattner says. If you really want to take a bath, wipe down the tub and be sure to rinse it well before getting in.
“No one wants to relax in a soup of bacteria,” Trattner says.
3. Think before you click.
Now that the bath is out, you might want to spend your evening relaxing in front of the television. After all, when you think of dirty things in a hotel room, the TV remote probably isn’t at the top of the list, but unfortunately, it should be.
“The germiest … surface we find is usually the TV remote, especially typical remotes with protruding buttons, since it seldom gets clean,” says Charles Gerba, PhD, who’s a professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona and has studied germs in hotel rooms.
The next time you think about scrolling through the channels, consider this: Gerba and his researchers found that remotes can hold E. coli and other fecal bacteria, and a shocking 18 percent of hotel remotes also have semen on them.
Just how dirty your remote is will vary. Gerba has found that the number of germs on remotes can range from 2,500 to 430,000. Even the low end of that range is too high for my comfort, so I’ll either skip the television watching or consider bringing antibacterial wipes to clean the remote myself the next time I pack for a hotel stay.
4. Forget about calling for help.
Second to the TV remote, Gerba says the next dirtiest place in a hotel room is the phone. Most people bring their cell phones everywhere these days, but you might still use the phone in your room to call room service or request a wakeup call. Although these are nice conveniences, it’s best not to touch the phone at all, if you can avoid it.
Gerba notes that his hotel room study was conducted a few years back. Since people use their cell phones so much now, the number of germs on hotel room phones might be lower. Either way, better safe than sorry.
5. Something’s lurking in the bathroom, but not where you’d expect.
It’s no surprise that hotel bathrooms can get pretty nasty.
“People tend to use the bathroom with reckless abandon,” says the hotel cleaner from Massachusetts.
Of course, the toilet and the surrounding areas can get pretty gross, but Gerba says that the dirtiest part of the bathroom is not where you would expect.
“People might be surprised to find that the sink counter often has more bacteria than the toilet seat,” he says.
The next time you’re tempted to leave your toothbrush, makeup, or jewelry on the bathroom counter—think twice. It’s better to put your personal items right back into your bag, where the only germs you have to worry about are your own.
Your getaway is a perfect storm for germs.
Wherever you’re traveling, the germs in your hotel room aren’t the only ones you’re going to encounter. There are also the germs in the lobby, the swimming pool, the restaurant, and, well, every other place you go to!
“Hotels can be challenging in terms of germs because of the large number of people in one place—often from different regions of the world—coming in and out on a daily basis,” Gerba tells HealthyWay.
Even systems like the air conditioning can keep all those microorganisms in circulation, exposing you to new germs throughout your stay. In fact, one of the most common ways that germs spread through a hotel is on the very people who are supposed to be stopping them.
“We’ve done virus tracer studies where we found that maids move the viruses from room to room during cleaning,” Gerba says.
How worried should you be?
All this information is pretty alarming, but before you go and cancel all the trips you’ve got planned, take a deep breath.
“The fear of germs in general is very overblown,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior associate at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland.
While the thought of other people’s germs is naturally heightened during a hotel room stay, Adalja says that we’re always surrounded by other people’s germs—we just don’t think about it much in the day to day.
“The germs in a cleaned hotel room are really no different than in other setting and likely include many innocuous germs as well as some that could cause disease,” he says.
“However, we constantly encounter disease-causing germs everywhere, and only [under] special circumstances do they actually cause harm.”
Gerba said that the most harmful germs you’re likely to encounter in a hotel room are the viruses that cause the cold and flu. While those aren’t fun—especially while traveling—they are common enough that chances are just as good that you’d encounter them as part of your daily routine.
In fact, Adalja says you’re more likely to pick up an infection or illness from the person you are sharing a hotel room with than from the previous occupants.
“The idea of special dangerous ‘hotel germs’ doesn’t make much sense, as our bodies are literally covered with germs and are constantly bombarded with them in all settings,” he tells HealthyWay.
Although that might be alarming to hear, the point is that hotel rooms aren’t that much dirtier than other spaces, especially spaces that we share with strangers.
In the meantime, however, I’ll let my husband keep taking apart the bed when we stay in a hotel—even if I know I’m more likely to catch a cold from him than the duvet on the floor.