When you think of the most germ-laden environments you could encounter, you might imagine somewhere like an airport bathroom. That’s fair, since those—and any other spots that a lot of people touch regularly, like subway poles and office doorknobs—can indeed be quite germy. But things in your home can also be germy hot spots you might want to consider cleaning more regularly.
As a quick disclaimer before we dive into the probable dirtiest parts of your home, not all germs are bad. Germs are all over everything! They’re your forever buddies, basically. The only ones that should really concern you are those that carry the potential of transmitting illness, like…some bacteria and viruses that might be hanging out on the dirtiest things in your home. Here, two germ experts identify the objects that tend to be dirtiest in most homes and share advice on how to go about cleaning them.
1. Your kitchen sink
“The absolute grossest place in the kitchen is the sink,” Meghan May, M.S., Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, tells SELF.
As May explains, some of the biggest concerns in the kitchen are microorganisms that can be found in contaminated food items like raw meats and dairy, such as the bacteria salmonella, Campylobacter, listeria, and E. coli. Then there are viruses like norovirus that can contaminate food and water as well. These can all cause foodborne illness that coops you up with symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, and a fever, the Mayo Clinic explains.
You might think it’s weird that the kitchen sink is such a potential hotbed for germs since it’s where you clean a lot of things, but that’s exactly why it’s so dirty. Think of cutting boards that have been covered in raw meat, whisks you used on raw eggs, or even just the splatter from your hands as you wash them, May explains.
External parts of your sink like the faucet handles can also be incredibly dirty if you do things like touch raw meat, then turn on the tap with your fingers.
2. The areas surrounding your toilet bowl
Nobody’s going to argue that the toilet bowl is a bacteria-free haven, but don’t focus on it so much that you ignore its surrounding areas like the flusher.
When you flush a toilet, a fine mist of its contents (including any bacteria and viruses) shoots into the air. This is a phenomenon known as toilet plume. Experts are unclear on exactly how far it can spread, but a 2005 study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found microorganisms over two feet in the air post-flush.
The level of pathogens involved here probably isn’t enough to make you sick…but it’s still pretty gross.
3. Your cleaning sponges and rags
For starters, a Scientific Reports study published in 2017 detected 362 types of bacteria in a sample of 14 different kitchen sponges. Again, it’s not like this means you’re definitely going to get sick because of your kitchen sponge, but it’s not exactly appetizing. In general, the Environmental Protection Agency EPA notes that sponges are hard to clean and make it far too easy for bacteria to thrive.
It’s not a much better picture for reusable dish rags. “The washcloth is known to be a great source of different bacteria,” Sami Raut, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham tells SELF. The EPA has gone as far as to say cotton rags and sponges shouldn’t be used for cleaning at all because they simply move germs around. A reusable surface that stays damp for long periods of time and isn’t disinfected in between is just a great home for all the grody gremlins you’d expect.
4. Any kids’ toys lying around
Most anyone who has hung around kids knows that they’re adorable germ factories. This means anything they touch, like their toys, can be teeming with viruses and bacteria, Raut says.
Influenza viruses that cause the flu, for example, can infect people for up to 48 hours on surfaces—like toys—that have been touched by a contagious person, according to the CDC.
5. Your cell phone
Raise your hand if you take your cell phone into the bathroom with you. Yeah…you shouldn’t. Remember that whole toilet plume thing?
If your phone is carrying potential pathogens and you’re carrying it around the house, you may be spreading those bacteria or viruses around, possibly making illness more likely.
6. Your computer’s keyboard
Not far off from your cell phone, your computer keyboard is another potential swamp of bacterial and viral invaders, Raut says. Ever eat over your computer, for instance? The germs on your hands (and the crumbs that sprinkle into your keyboard) can lead to bacterial growth.
In a 2018 study published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers took samples from 25 different keyboards, around 96 percent of which were contaminated with pathogens like E. coli and Staphylococcus.
7. Doorknobs and light switches
Rule of thumb (quite literally): Anything you—and other people in your home—touch this often has the potential to be pretty filthy. And, since they’re pretty inconspicuous, it’s pretty easy to ignore these for more noticeably dirty items such as kitchen counters.
So, how do you actually clean all of this stuff?
First, you should know that there’s a difference between cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing, according to the CDC:
Cleaning is about physically removing germs, dirt, and debris from a surface. Disinfecting relies on chemicals to kill germs, but it doesn’t actually clean dirty surfaces. Sanitizing is reducing the number of germs via either cleaning or disinfecting to meet certain public health standards (this is applicable somewhere like a hospital, for instance).
When it comes to your home, you’ll primarily be cleaning and disinfecting. Here are the best items for doing just that:
Microfiber cloths: The EPA recommends these, washed daily, as a more sanitary alternative to cleaning items like cotton rags. Cloths labeled as ultra-fine high-quality microfiber are best, according to the EPA.
Soap and water: Not only does this remove visible dirt and other substances, soap can also kill potential pathogens.
Conventional cleaning wipes and sprays: These can be a great and effective cleaning and disinfecting choice, Raut says. For instance, you can use them to wipe down kids’ toys every couple of days. You may be confused about how to choose between all the options out there. The EPA has a list of “Safer Choice” cleaning products to help you identify which are the least harmful to human health.
Bleach: This is the most effective readily available disinfectant, May says, adding that she uses it in her laboratory. After using something like soap and water to clean visible debris away from areas like the kitchen sink, a diluted mixture of bleach and water can be a great disinfectant.
However, you need to use bleach the right way. It can stain your clothes easily and be irritating to the eyes and lungs, which is why the CDC recommends people open their windows and use rubber gloves and even eye protection when cleaning with bleach. You should also never mix bleach with ammonia or any other cleaning products, because that can create a toxic gas. Stick exclusively with water in order to dilute your bleach cleaning solution. You can try a solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach in 1 quart of water.
Vinegar: You may have heard that vinegar is a fantastic cleaning option. It does seem promising. In a 2014 study published by the American Society for Microbiology, a 6 percent vinegar solution managed to kill off tuberculosis bacteria after a 30-minute exposure. But it’s worth mentioning that in a recommendation for healthcare equipment cleaning, the CDC says vinegar shouldn’t be used for disinfecting because it’s not effective against Staphylococcus, although undiluted vinegar does appear to be effective against E. Coli and salmonella. If you’re wondering about baking soda as a similarly “natural” cleaning option, that poor substance wasn’t effective for any of these.
If what you’re looking for is top-notch disinfection, go for something stronger and more reliable than vinegar, like bleach, May says. If you’re really committed to sticking with vinegar, know that there aren't solid guidelines for exactly how much vinegar (or what kind) you need in order to disinfect at maximum capacity. To be effective against the biggest variety of bacteria and viruses, May suggests using white or malt vinegar—these have the most evidence behind them—in a 50 percent solution or higher.
Hydrogen peroxide: This is a fantastic disinfectant, May says, but the problem is that once it’s exposed to oxygen, it pretty much turns into water and loses its punch. In order to use hydrogen peroxide as a disinfectant, you’d need to purchase a new bottle each time you opened it. Or, she says, you can mix borax and water, which creates a byproduct of hydrogen peroxide. A 5 percent solution of borax to water should work great, she explains. The best way to get there is using the metric system: Mix five grams of borax powder to 100 milliliters of water, she says. (It may be easier to mix this up if you buy specific measuring tools with these increments.)
One final thing to consider when you’re disinfecting: contact time.
May says you’ll want to leave any kind of liquid solutions in contact with the surface in question for at least two minutes so they can do their job. With something like wipes, you can just move them over the surface and let it dry. After that, rest easy knowing you’ve got a wonderfully clean home. Until your next sneeze, that is.