Even the most extreme germaphobes—ones who sanitize every nook and cranny of their homes and avoid shaking hands like the plague—still participate in activities in which germs thrive on every surface. Despite all efforts to keep themselves as healthy and microbe-free as possible, they will still encounter these icky microorganisms on a daily basis.
Heck, anyone will. No sense in worrying.
In fact, before we get into it, let’s get one thing straight: Germs are not inherently bad. And as one of our experts points out, it’s irrational to think a germ-free life is possible.
But there are a few common places where the make-you-sick kind of microscopic visitors can thrive. The following are just a few of the dirty things we do each day (and ways to clean them up):
Checking Your Mobile Phone
Standing in line, waiting at the doctor’s office, taking a break at work—your cellphone constantly calls to you even when you don’t hear the text notification or feel the vibration. There’s a nagging need to look at it all the time.
On average, we check our phones 47 times a day, according to a study by Deloitte, a professional services network. Eighty nine percent of people check their phones within an hour of waking up, and 81 percent look at their phones in the hour before they fall asleep. In short, we’re smartphone addicts.
Well, a study at University of Arizona found that our cellphones have 10 times more germs than a public toilet. And because everyone knows toilets are dirty, they get cleaned often. Cellphones? Not so much.
“We need to wipe our phones with [disinfectant] solutions at least once in two days,” says Lokesh Sharoff, MBBS, a doctor at P.D Hinduja National Hospital & Medical Research Centre. To remind yourself to clean your phone, keep a bottle near the charger.
“People also have a habit of biting or licking the opposite side of the pen, which do carry a lot of germs,” says Sharoff. A nervous habit for many, gnawing on a pen can not only serve as an unsanitary action, but it can also damage your teeth.
Health resource Health Guidance for Better Health offers the following suggestions for curbing the habit:
- Coat your pens with nail varnish to make them taste bad
- Wrap the pen with tape
- Choose a non-tempting type of pen (a metal pen won’t look as tasty)
- Let others know you’re trying to stop chewing on pens and ask them to hold you accountable
Using a Shopping Cart
With all the people who touch shopping carts on a daily basis, all the food that moves in and out of them, and all the employees who rarely clean them, the fact that shopping carts offer some of the dirtiest public surfaces should come as no surprise.
In study published in Food Protection Trends, researchers sampled 85 shopping carts throughout the West Coast and found that the cart surfaces contained more bacteria than 100 public restrooms—even including the filthiest parts of a toilet: the seat and the handle.
On top of that, researchers discovered half of the carts contained E. coli, and 72 percent contained coliform bacteria. The elevated level of coliform meant that fecal matter was involved in the contamination.
Before you start shopping, carry wipes into the store with you and wipe down the cart before you use it. After your grocery trip and before you put away your purchases, be sure to wash your hands.
Tsippora Shainhouse, a dermatologist and pediatrician, says to wash for 15 seconds and sing the ABCs in your head to ensure you get everything.
“To make sure that your hands don’t take the brunt of this washing,” she adds, “use a moisturizing cream afterwards, preferably one with ceramides that help maintain the skin barrier.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Keeping hands clean through improved hand hygiene is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.”
Visiting Your Office Break Room
You probably hit the office break room a couple of times a day to fill up your cup of coffee and pick up your lunch bag. Beware: The break room and kitchen are the worst places for office germs.
In “one of the most detailed and comprehensive studies ever conducted on identifying workplace hot spots where germs can lurk,” microbiologist Charles Gerba, in concert with Kimberly-Clark Professional, found that the break room, especially the sink and microwave handles, were “the dirtiest surfaces touched by office workers on a daily basis.”
In this study, hygienists from Kimberly-Clark Professional, a subsidiary of personal care item producer Kimberly-Clark, collected almost 5,000 swabs from office buildings with more than 3,000 staff members. The office buildings included organizations from a range of industries, including law firms, insurance companies, healthcare, and call centers. Some of the dirtiest parts of the break room, their test results showed, were the handles of the sink faucets, microwave, and refrigerator doors.
To work toward a cleaner workplace, management should offer easy access to cleaning solutions, like keeping hand and cleaning wipes next to areas that people often touch.
Christopher Calapai, DO, a board-certified osteopathic physician, also advises routinely washing your hands and using Lysol sprays in the office.
You have enough to worry about a lot when you’re driving—distracted, impaired, or lead-footed drivers, for instance—and now you can add germs to the list.
“Typically, things that we have our hands on all the time are risks, including money, telephones in offices, [and] some surfaces at home and in the workplace,” says Calapai. And all those germs make it onto your steering wheel.
One of the germs researchers found was Bacillus cereus, which can bring on food poisoning, according to CBS News’ report on the study.
To avoid tracking germs back to your steering wheel, carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you. “I always have one in the side bucket of my car. I rub it into my hands as I get into my car to make sure that I do not transfer any outside germs onto my steering wheel,” says Shainhouse.
According to a study out of the University of Arizona (as reported on by CleanTechnica), pumping gas is the most germ-filled everyday activity you can do.
The trusty team of microbiologist Charles Gerba and researchers from Kimberly-Clark Professional found that 71 percent of gas pump handles are highly contaminated “with sorts of microbes most highly associated with illness and disease.”
To prevent adding to the germ pile, you should wash your hands before using the gas pump. Also, keep a bottle of hand sanitizer in your glove compartment to use after you fill up.
Office workers, take note: Your keyboard, like many things on this list, is dirtier than a public toilet.
A consumer group called Which? tested 33 keyboards in their London offices and found that they housed germs that could cause food poisoning, according to the BBC. Of those tested, “four were regarded as a potential health hazard,” and another contained five times more germs than one of the office’s toilet seats. It was so dirty (with 150 times the recommended bacteria limit) that the tester had the keyboard removed and quarantined.
The less grime on your keyboard, the less material there is for bacteria to consume. According to Intel, to keep your keyboard clean, you should:
- Spray it with a can of compressed air, which you can pick up at any office supply store
- Vacuum it with a dust attachment
- Turn it upside down and lightly tap the keyboard to knock away loose crumbs
- Use the sticky part of a Post-it note for the hard-to-remove crumbs
- Use cotton swabs around the keys
- Use a screen wipe on the stubborn sections
- Avoid eating over your keyboard
Keeping Yourself Healthy
Overall, you can take additional steps to keep yourself as germ-free as possible. Most of them are fairly elementary.
“The best hygiene tip is to just exercise common sense and practice good hand hygiene when in situations such as public transportation, restroom use, and prior to eating,” says Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Oh, and don’t forget to take your vitamins. “Consider taking vitamin D supplements—2000 IU—daily,” Shainhouse says. “The theory is that vitamin D is necessary for the body to make cathelicidins, part of the innate immune system that helps fight off infections.”
If it isn’t clear by now, you cannot live germ free.
Adalja is sure to note that the planet teems with microbes, the majority of which do no harm and are necessary for normal human functioning. “It is misguided to think that one can—or would want to—avoid germs altogether.”
Even spraying down your house, your car, and your clothes will not rid your life of microbes. To avoid the nasty ones, all you can do is keep yourself as healthy as possible by frequently washing your hands, keeping sanitizer (hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, the like) in the proper places, and making sure you’re getting all of the necessary vitamins and minerals to strengthen your immune system.