The holiday season ushers in friends and family filling our homes and making memories. But as you get your home ready for guests, you may want to pay some special attention to what’s been dubbed the “germiest” place in a home — and no, it’s not where you might think it is.
Germs, Germs, Germs
Germs, for better or worse, are all around us. We come into contact with bacteria, viruses, and fungi all the time. While many germs can make us sick, most of them just hang around without causing any harm. Most of the germs that have the potential to make us sick usually don't have the chance to actually do it, thanks to good hygiene habits and our immune system.
However, there are certain places in our homes and public spaces where harmful germs are more likely to be found. Even though no single study has been able to figure out which surfaces are the most contaminated, the results from the 2011 National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) Germ Study are really interesting.
The kitchen holds the title of “germiest place in the house.” Yep, you read that correctly — the kitchen. In fact, researchers found that bacterial contamination is far more common in the kitchen than in the bathroom. Why? It’s because the kitchen is where we prepare foods that can spread salmonella and E. coli (a cutting board we use for meat, for example).
Speaking of cutting boards, recent surveys of homes found more fecal bacteria on a cutting board in the average home than on a toilet seat. 200 times more, to be exact. The tiny grooves left by knives on cutting boards are prime real estate for germs to get cozy, especially when used to cut up poultry and meats, which can also have salmonella and campylobacter bacteria. It’s really difficult to effectively clean those tiny grooves, which gives bacteria a chance to spread and cause illness.
Kitchen rags, towels, and sponges are also notorious for bacterial contamination, with a 2017 study finding 362 different species of bacteria living in used kitchen sponges, and 82 billion bacteria living in just one cubic inch of space. The sink drain, sink, and countertops are also frequently contaminated, with the sink having more fecal bacteria than a flushed toilet.
“Many people defrost raw meat products in sinks or rinse raw chicken and don’t do more than run water to clean it,” says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a microbiologist at the University of Arizona and author of one of the first studies to measure bacterial contamination of common household objects.
One of the top five germiest places in the kitchen, according to the NSF, is the water reservoir for your coffee pot and coffee filter basket.
To clean your coffee maker, it's best to adhere to the manufacturer's guidelines for your specific machine. Typically, this involves cleaning the reservoir once a month by pouring up to four cups of undiluted vinegar into it. Allow the vinegar to sit for 30 minutes, then turn on the coffee maker to run the vinegar through the system. Follow this with two to three cycles of fresh water, or more if the vinegar smell lingers.
The NSF also discovered that 36% of the tested meat compartments in refrigerators, can openers, and blender gaskets had both salmonella and E. coli. Additionally, 36% of vegetable compartments in the fridge tested positive for salmonella, and 14% for listeria. Additionally, 36% of tested rubber spatulas and pizza cutters also contained E. coli.
Do you notice a pattern here? Places that are often wet and touched by hands or in contact with food are more likely to have bacteria living in them. Even the filter on the faucet can have layers of bacteria on it.
Keep It Clean
The good news is that by following simple practices, we can avoid getting sick. To combat these microbes, Gerba recommends cleaning cutting boards and the sink with bleach, which is a common ingredient in kitchen cleaning products for its disinfecting power. If you prefer to make your own solution, you can mix one tablespoon of bleach with one gallon of water.
According to the NSF, it's a good idea to use this same bleach solution once a month to disinfect kitchen drains and disposals. Kitchen sink strainers should be cleaned weekly in the dishwasher. If your cutting board is dishwasher safe, you can also put it through the sanitize cycle on your dishwasher. Additionally, remember to wipe down the faucet handles on your sink as well.
However, Gerba adds that many people clean ineffectively, which may not do much to disinfect. Because of this, he recommends disinfectant wipes instead of sprays, mostly because of the way we misuse the spray versions.
“A lot of people just spray like a blessing and then wipe,” Gerba says. “The compound gets caught up in the cloth, so it’s not as effective. But the wipes have the right dose and they have to dry, which helps kill the pathogen.”
Wipes are convenient and you can rest assured you’re applying enough disinfectant to get the job done, but they are more expensive and oftentimes not environmentally friendly, so if you want to avoid that cost, just be sure to spray thoroughly and let it sit for a bit before wiping.
To minimize cross-contamination, it is recommended to use colored cutting boards: one for meats, one for veggies, and one for poultry. Additionally, changing kitchen towels and sponges every 3 days is another effective step to further combat cross-contamination.
While you may still be well aware of these tips from 2020, they still hold true for keeping illness at bay:
- Avoid touching your face! Viruses often spread when they go from surfaces to our hands and then to our face. Surprisingly, studies reveal that the average person touches their face anywhere from four to 18 times in an hour!
- Another important measure is regular handwashing with soap and water or using hand sanitizer with alcohol. This helps create a strong defense against germs.
- Lastly, don’t forget to gently clean your mobile device with a moist, lint-free cloth or occasionally with alcohol-based disinfectant products made specifically for these devices.
Need to see a physician during cold and flu season outside of traditional office hours? Breeze Urgent Care centers are conveniently located near you throughout our North Texas communities and are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, 365 days a year.