En español | Should you touch the toilet seat? Eww, no! It's full of germs. But did you know there are everyday items with just as many — if not more — bacteria than the toilet seat? As University of Arizona microbiologist and germ guru Charles Gerba puts it, "People are overly concerned with diseases from a toilet seat. There are none!"
In fact, nearly half of American women either wipe a toilet seat before use or put toilet paper or a paper liner on it, which keeps it pretty clean, he said. What they really should be worried about are their handbags. Or the Uber vehicle in which they just rode. Or the sick person at home who's spreading germs on everything he touches.
While most germs are nothing to worry about for the average healthy person, people older than 50 need to be a little more germ wary, Gerba says. That's because our immune systems get weaker as we age, and germ-related illness can be more severe.
Here are six everyday germ offenders you may not have thought about:
Put the toilet seat down? Check. Wipe the toothpaste off the sink? Check. Clean the toothbrush holder? Probably not. It's time to add this to your morning routine, because your toothbrush holder is the third most germ-infested household item, according to a study from NSF International, a nonprofit public health group based in Michigan.. Want to keep it clean? First, close the lid on the toilet when you flush. That's because germs that rise in the air when you flush can land on your toothbrush holder, not to mention the many germs that are already on your toothbrush — 10 million, to be exact. Second, NSF recommends throwing it in a dishwasher on the sanitizing cycle once or twice a week (if it's dishwasher safe) to kill any germs.
Tip: The best ways to avoid germs on your toothbrush and toothbrush holder are to keep them far away from the toilet, clean them weekly and replace your toothbrush every three to four months.
Ladies, you and your handbag are just about joined at the hip — and that's the problem. You take it everywhere, even to the bathroom, and that's probably why it has so many germs. A British study, in which researchers took bacteria samples from office workers' handbags, found that the average purse is three times dirtier than an office toilet seat and that 1 in 5 handbag handles contain enough germs to pose a significant risk of cross-contamination from the handle to your hand. Handbags carry so many germs because we touch them all the time and put them on the floor, and they're also packed with other germ-infested items such as hand creams and cosmetics. In fact, the dirtiest handbag items in the study turned out to be face or hand cream, with more bacteria on it than the average toilet seat, closely followed by lipstick and mascara.
Tip: Avoid placing your purse on the floor. Nonleather bags can be wiped down with an antibacterial wipe. For leather bags, wipe with a soft cloth and warm soapy water.
Car: Ride shares, rentals and taxis
If you rely on cabs, rental cars or even popular ride-sharing services to get around, chances are you're probably sharing those rides with microscopic critters. A new study conducted by NetQuote, an insurance comparison site, swabbed nine vehicles in South Florida and found a whopping amount of germs everywhere, with seat belts and window buttons the worst. Surprisingly, taxis had the lowest amount of germs, followed by rental cars and ride-share cars. In your own car, the dashboard is a big germ repository because it doesn't get enough direct airflow from vents to help disperse bacteria, according to microbiologist Gerba.
Tip: Sanitize your hands after riding in the car and avoid eating in vehicles, whether they are private or public. Eating can pass on germs from surfaces to our mouths.
Gas pump handle
While you're filling up your car with gas, you're also filling up your hands with germs from the gas pump handle, according to a study by Kimberly-Clark Professional, a division of the Kimberly-Clark Corp. Researchers took more than 350 swab tests for bacteria across six major cities — Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami and Philadelphia — and found that 71 percent of gas pump handles were highly contaminated with potentially illness-causing bacteria. Escalator rails and ATM buttons also triggered high counts.
Tip: Keep disposable vinyl gloves in your car and use them for pumping gas. It may look silly, but wearing them can cut your risk of colds and flu.
Your office desk
Your office space is a prime breeding ground for germs, and we're not talking about computer viruses. As Gerba puts it, "Nobody seems to clean a desktop till they start sticking to it. Same thing with the office phone." According to a British cleaning company CSG, the most germ-ridden place in an office is the telephone, with 25,127 microbes per square inch, followed by the keyboard, with 3,295 microbes, and the computer mouse, with 1,676 microbes. A toilet seat, by comparison, had 49 microbes per square inch. Considering that a typical office worker comes in contact with 10 million germs each day, just one person carrying a virus can infect up to 50 percent of all employees and equipment in their vicinity in just four hours.
Tip: Use an antibacterial wipe on your office equipment daily, and regularly wash or sanitize your hands throughout the day.
Add this to your list of reasons for skipping the gym: Free weights have 362 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. FitRated, a company that reviews gym equipment, gathered bacteria samples from 27 different pieces of equipment across three gyms and found potentially dangerous bacteria, including the type that could lead to pneumonia, as well as antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Treadmills and exercise bikes were a little better, but not by much. Although this sounds alarming, Gerba notes that less than 1 percent of the germs we find on surfaces pose any risk. Still, in this study more than 70 percent of the bacteria found were potentially harmful to humans. Gym etiquette says users should wipe down equipment with sanitizer after they're done, but obviously many of us have skipped this rule.
Tip: Always clean the equipment before and after you use it, and place a towel over any surfaces you plan to sit on. Don't forget to wash the towel afterward!
The takeaway: Most germs are nothing to worry about for an average healthy person, but people older than 55 need to be a little more wise about germs, Gerba says. He credits this to the fact that as you get older, your immune system gets weaker and germ-related illness will usually be more severe.