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13 Really Germy Places in Your Home (and How to Clean Them)

Don’t let viruses and bacteria spread or make your family sick

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You can’t see them, but your home is teeming with microscopic germs that can spread illness among your family and guests.

“Even the cleanest house will have bacteria and viruses,” says Ernesto Abel-Santos, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Most of them are actually beneficial to us.”

People need to watch out for the ones that are harmful, however.

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The preparation of raw food makes the kitchen a breeding ground for microbes — the scientific term for viruses and bacteria. The bathroom and laundry room also are hot spots, says Lori Delorme Banks, an assistant professor of biology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Why? Germs like warm, moist environments. Water and the absence of sunlight help bacteria grow.

Touching germ-covered surfaces is the main way colds, stomach flu and foodborne illnesses spread. People with diseases that weaken the immune system, like diabetes, may be at higher risk of contracting these illnesses.

The flu virus, for example, can live up to 48 hours on hard surfaces, according to the Hygiene Council, an international group of infectious disease experts. Hardier bacteria can even last up to a week.

Although the COVID-19 virus can live for days on some surfaces, research has found that’s not typically how it is transmitted. The virus mainly spreads by air — droplets of saliva from person to person as they sneeze, cough or speak.

“Maintaining clean surfaces at home is important because it’s the first line of protecting your family,” Banks says. Soap with hot water is OK to clean many surfaces, but she recommends using an alcohol-based cleaner (70 percent of higher) or a diluted bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water) daily or a couple of times a week. You also can buy disinfecting wipes made with bleach.

Here are 13 of the germiest household areas and how to clean them.

1. Spice jars

Think all you’re doing is sprinkling spices on your food? You might also be transferring — or picking up — bacteria on your hands as you handle those jars of cumin, paprika or chili powder. A study published in the Journal of Food Protection last year found that as people cook, they often spread bacteria to spice jars. As part of the study, researchers asked people to prepare a meal of turkey patties and a salad. After the meal was cooked, researchers detected bacteria from the turkey on 48 percent of the spice containers, making the jars a key vehicle for cross-contamination. To prevent this, make sure you wash your hands before cooking and after handling any raw meat. And you can use a hot, soapy cloth or disinfectant wipes on spice jars for a clean slate. ​

2. High-touch surfaces

The germiest household surfaces are those touched daily by many people, such as faucets, light switches and remotes. You also can add phones, computer keyboards, microwave pads and game consoles to this list. Clean them with disinfectant wipes with an alcohol base that evaporates instead of a spray.

3. Kitchen sponge

This is one of the worst germ culprits because the holes in a sponge let bacteria flourish and form blobs that are difficult to remove, Banks says. She suggests soaking a sponge in a diluted bleach solution, running it in the dishwasher (on a high-heat cycle) or placing it in a bowl of water with soap in the microwave.

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4. Cutting board

Raw meat and vegetables can carry E. coli and salmonella. Abel-Santos suggests using separate cutting boards — one for meat and one for everything else. Scrub cutting boards after each use with soap and hot water. Consider using diluted bleach on wooden boards and putting plastic ones in the dishwasher.

5. Kitchen sink

Ridges in and around the sink can harbor bacteria. Scrub around the drain with a brush and a diluted bleach solution. Pay close attention to areas where the lip of the sink meets the counter.

6. Refrigerator

Clean the inside regularly, especially the vegetable drawers because they hold raw produce, Abel-Santos advises. Spills drip downward, so clean drips and accumulated substances inside and outside the bottom of your fridge.

7. Countertops

Clean and disinfect any surface where food is prepared — before and afterward — to remove foodborne bacteria that can cause illnesses. The same goes for bathroom counters that may pick up sprayed germs as you floss or rinse your toothbrush.

8. Whirlpool bathtubs

A study by Rita B. Moyes, a microbiologist at Texas A&M University in College Station, found that jetted tubs are full of bacteria that can cause upper respiratory infections. “The piping system retains gunk and moisture to keep things alive in there, creating a biofilm — a sticky mass of bacteria like what you get on your teeth overnight,” she says. “The problem is these microscopic bacteria become an aerosol when you run water through the jets that can get into your lungs.”

9. Toothbrushes

Clean toothbrushes — and put their holders in the dishwasher. Replace toothbrushes regularly.

10. Toilet

Clean the area where the toilet meets the floor and wipe down the toilet handle often because people typically use it before washing their hands, Banks says. She suggests keeping the toilet area as minimalist as possible to avoid bacteria that can spray when flushing. An alternative solution, Abel-Santos suggests, is to flush with the lid down.

11. Laundry room

Bacteria can grow in your washing machine drain, and bacteria from dirty laundry, such as underwear and towels, can collect in the washer drum, Banks says. In both cases, run an empty cycle of hot water and a half cup of bleach once or twice a month depending on usage.

12. Towels

Wash hand towels at least once a week, more often if there are children around. Avoid sharing towels because they may harbor microbes.

13. Waste basket

This receptacle can harbor germs from the items you discard. Regularly disinfect these bathroom and kitchen containers with soap and water or disinfectant. Tamp down germs by using a plastic liner.

“My advice is to live reasonably, but if you start getting infections or food poisoning then you need to step up a little,” Moyes says. “Use common sense.”

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Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 15, 2022. It has been updated to reflect new information. 

Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association’s website.

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