I am a cleaning nut. If there’s a surface to be shined, I’ll shine it. If there’s streaky glass, I’ll polish it. I’ll clean, wash, scrub, and disinfect just about everything in my house I can get my hands on, and I’ve even been known to not sleep well when I know dust bunnies are gathering under the bed. (My fiancé still hasn’t decided whether my proclivity for cleaning makes him the luckiest or most tortured man in the world.)
Regardless of whether your cleaning routine is a simple toilet-floor-dishes progression or one that borders on mania (like, umm, sanitizing your baseboards), there are likely some items in your house that are riddled with germs and need to be sanitized. Even those of us on high dirt alert can occasionally forget about these stealthy bacteria bombs.
Reusable Grocery Bags
Many of us have gotten into the habit of taking our own bags when we do our shopping, but how many of us clean them after each trip? According to a study conducted by the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University, 97 percent of consumers never wash their bags. About 50 percent of the bags tested contained coliform (fecal) bacteria, and 12 percent contained E. coli. Especially since many people choose reusable bags to bring their lunch to work, to transport books or clothes, and for many other household uses, washing them after each use is the key to stopping contamination from vegetables or raw meat. Cloth bags can go directly into the washer and dryer, and recycled plastic bags can be wiped down with hot soapy water or treated with a disinfectant spray. Researchers also advise using each bag for only a single purpose—carrying raw meat, carrying vegetables, transporting laundry, or as a miscellaneous shopping tote.
Everyone loves a shower in the morning, but no one wants to get showered with bacteria. If you haven’t cleaned your showerhead recently, though, this is what may be happening. A study at the University of Colorado at Boulder found that 30 percent of showerheads tested positive for Mycobacterium avium, a germ that can cause lung infections, and for other various bacteria and fungi. Since some microbes may be resistant to chlorine, the best way to clean a showerhead is to soak it in a diluted vinegar solution and then scrub the deposits away with an old toothbrush. Plastic showerheads are more prone to bacterial buildup than metal ones, so people with compromised immune systems are advised to consider switching if necessary.
A 2008 experiment by a researcher in England found that some computer keyboards harbor five times as many bacteria than the average toilet seat—bacteria including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), E. coli, and staph. The Centers for Disease Control blamed computer-equipment contamination for a 2007 norovirus outbreak that affected more than 100 people at a Washington, D.C., elementary school. Even private computers used at home aren’t immune to infection, considering that people are more likely to clean, take out trash, prepare food, handle pets, or use the bathroom without washing their hands when they’re at home. A good scrub after typing is the best way to avoid getting sick, but cleaning the keyboard is another good idea. First, eliminate dirt and crumbs using a vacuum cleaner or compressed-air canister, and then use a solution of diluted dishwashing detergent or isopropyl alcohol to swab down the keys with cotton balls or cotton swabs. (Make sure you disconnect the keyboard first.) While you’re at it, you might as well give the same treatment to your mouse, as well as your TV’s remote control.
They may hang motionless, but drapes and curtains are a magnet for dust mites, pet hair, mold, dander, and debris of all kinds. If someone in your house suffers from indoor allergies, cleaning the curtains regularly can help reduce allergen buildup. Simple panel curtains can usually be washed and dried at home and then steamed to release wrinkles. There are certain types of draperies you should take to a dry cleaner or other cleaning professional, including lace curtains, designs with embroidery or appliqué, those with pleats or complicated fabric construction, and draperies that are too big to fit into your washing machine. In between washings, experts recommend vacuuming curtains with a hose and brush attachment at least once a month to prevent debris from building up.
Considering that the kitchen is usually the dirtiest spot in any house—even dirtier than the bathroom—it’s no surprise that trash cans can become laden with germs. Even if you take out the trash regularly (which I sincerely hope you do), the can itself is still coming into contact with dirt, dust, old food, raw meat, decomposing vegetables, moldy leftovers, kitty litter, and whatever else we deem to be too old, too gross, or too disgusting to keep in the house. Clean the trash cans at least twice a month to prevent the spread of germs like E. coli, salmonella, trichinosis, and simple cold and flu bugs. Small pails can go into the dishwasher; wash large cans with hot water and a mild bleach solution or with a product designed for pet messes, which contain enzymes to break down bacteria. A hose works best, but apartment-dwellers can clean a large trash can in the shower. (Just remember to rinse out the tub afterward.)
Researchers at the University of Arizona found that about 96 percent of shoes carry traces of fecal bacteria on the soles. If you think about the legions of feet that have crossed your threshold, you might decide that it’s time to give the welcome mat a welcome washing. Vacuum mats with fabric tops before washing to remove dust and loose dirt; you can wash rubber-backed mats in the washing machine. The easiest way to clean any doormat is to spray it down with a garden hose or use the pressure washer at a car wash, using a small amount of soap or detergent. Allow the mat to air-dry completely before putting it back into service.
No matter how vigilant we are, we can never create a completely sterile environment. It’s normal to come into contact with some germs and bacteria—they help us digest our food, keep our immune systems on alert, and provide a whole host of beneficial services. We can’t eradicate every single microbe that crosses our paths, but given the choice between living with more or fewer bacteria, you don’t have to be a clean freak to know which to pick.