Warning: If you're even a mild germaphobe, the following information may make you shudder.
Some of the things you touch all the time are absolutely teeming with bacteria. And we're not talking obvious-seeming offenders like toilet seats, either. Believe it or not, those are actually cleaner than the culprits listed below (which appear in no particular order). So grab your favorite sanitizer, microbe-loathers: It's time to dive in and get our hands dirty.
1. SPONGES AND DISHCLOTHS
Scrub-a-dub-dub! The very items you use to clean your hands and dishes are among the filthiest objects you encounter, according to numerous ick-inducing studies [PDF]. Kitchen sponges are the worst, with as many as 10 million bacteria per square inch—about 200,000 times more than your friendly neighborhood toilet seat.
Dishcloths are also filthy: Researchers in one study, which analyzed 82 dishcloths from five major cities in the U.S. and Canada [PDF], found E. coli on 25.6 percent of towels and Salmonella on almost 14 percent of the dishcloths. Another study [PDF], published a year later, had similar findings. "Towels were the most contaminated of all the contact surfaces we tested," lead study author Dr. Jeannie Sneed, a Kansas State University food safety specialist, told Prevention.
2. SINKS, FAUCETS, AND HANDLES
From the basins to the handles, the places you go to get water could do with a thorough scrubbing. The kitchen is worse than the bathroom, amazingly, but both can be covered with all kinds of yecchy bacteria. In fact, some research by the brave souls at NSF International found coliform bacteria—a family that includes both Salmonella and E. coli—in a whopping 45 percent of kitchen sinks. For comparison, only 9 percent of bathroom sink handles had the same bugs present.
Thinking about switching to the shower for all your germ-blasting activities? Think again: A 2009 study found household shower heads are frequently home to pathogens called Mycobacterium avium, which can play a role in causing pulmonary disease. Yikes.
3. TOOTHBRUSHES AND TOOTHBRUSH HOLDERS
Open wide: That brush you've been running over your pearly whites probably has more germs than your dog’s entire mouth. The reason isn't what's in your chompers but rather what's on and around your enamel-polishing apparatus. First, most of us leave our toothbrushes wet when we're done—a lovely place for nasty-sounding stuff like Serratia marcescens, which can cause meningitis, to settle.
Second, our toothbrushes tend to be close to our toilets—and if you flush with the toilet lid up, everything within a 5- to 6-foot radius is getting sprayed with aerosolized fecal matter. So ... shut that lid.
4. REFRIGERATOR HANDLES
Going for a snack? Consider putting on gloves first: The handle to your home refrigerator door could be playing host to a variety of foul germs, not to mention regular yeast and mold. On the plus side, remembering said info could help curb your appetite the next time you're trying to drop a few pounds.
5. CUTTING BOARDS
Cutting boards are among the worst offenders when it comes to harboring dangerous bacteria. Depending on which expert you ask, kitchen chopping surfaces can have anywhere from 50 to 200 times as much bacteria—everything from E. coli to Salmonella, which can cause severe stomach illness—as an average commode.
6. REMOTE CONTROLS
Sorry, channel surfers, but your clicker's covered with germs—Coliform bacteria, mold, and potentially even the infection-causing Staphylococcus aureus, which NSF International found on 14 percent of household remotes.
And if you think the one in your house is bad, you should see what scientists have detected on hotel room remotes: an average of 67.6 colony-forming units of bacteria per cubic centimeter. For perspective, that's more than 13 times the maximum acceptable level recommended for hospitals. So maybe put on some gloves before grabbing the remote.
Incoming message: Your smartphone is caked with countless types of bacteria—including ones whose names alone might make you feel phantom symptoms as often as you feel phantom phone vibrations (among them is our old pal Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause skin infections, pneumonia, and food poisoning, among other awful conditions). If some studies are to be believed, that petri dish in your pocket packs 10 times as many germs as a public bathroom's toilet.
Quick, ladies: When's the last time you cleaned your purse? The answer is probably "not recently enough." A 2012 swab test found beaucoup bacteria in handbags, with germs lurking everywhere from the handles to the items inside (especially those related to makeup).
9. GROCERY CARTS
You know those wipes most groceries have sitting out by the carts? Start using them: Researchers say almost all supermarket carts have E. coli because of the frequent food contamination.
Reusable grocery bags aren't much better: A 2010 analysis found frequent traces of E. coli on totes, too, and went as far as to call them "a serious threat to public health"—particularly for young children.
The solution? Wash, wash, wash—thoroughly and after every single trip to the store. Also, do whatever you can to avoid mixing raw foods with other items, since that's where much of the trouble arises.
Staph, Coliform, yeast, and mold are among the tasty treats likely to be hiding in the crannies of your favorite QWERTY keyboard. And on that note, if you'll excuse us, we need to go wash our hands a few dozen times.