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People avoid touching the obviously dirty things — toilet bowls, garbage cans, anything in a public restroom. But for every well-known nasty, there are a host of under-the-radar threats we put in our mouths, roll around on all night, and regularly rub on our faces.

Even if you’re upping your handwashing and doorknob cleaning these days, things are probably still dirtier than you think.

In an effort to keep clean, happy, and healthy, here are 21 surprisingly dirty things and what to do about them.


It’s easy for bacteria and food particles to get trapped in the nooks and crannies of sponges, creating ideal conditions for bacteria to breed.Marotta SM, et al. (2019). Study on microbial communities in domestic kitchen sponges: Evidence of Cronobacter sakazakii and Extended Spectrum Beta Lactamase (ESBL) producing bacteria. DOI: 10.4081/ijfs.2018.7672 Moist, dark — what else could bacteria ask for?!

What to do: Try antibacterial sponges and dish soaps to limit the lesser of bacteria evils — but neither are very effective at controlling the spread of big name baddies like E. Coli and Salmonella.Kusumaningrum HD, et al. (2002). Effects of antibacterial dishwashing liquid on foodborne pathogens and competitive microorganisms in kitchen sponges. DOI: 10.4315/0362-028x-65.1.61

Be extra safe by disinfecting sponges at least once a week by soaking in a bleach solution for 5 minutes, or microwaving on high for 2 minutes. (The microwave method has even been shown to kill 99 percent of bacteria.)Park DK, et al. (2006). Microbial inactivation by microwave radiation in the home environment. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17190338

Kitchen knobs, handles, and buttons

Taking something from the fridge, grabbing spices from the cabinet, preheating the oven, zapping something in the microwave — a lot goes into cooking a meal, including any bacteria from that raw chicken or unwashed produce.

What to do: To minimize the risk, some experts recommend using a disinfectant on any frequently used kitchen surfaces, especially before and after preparing a meal.

Don’t miss those light switches!

Cutting boards

With all the ingredients flying around that kitchen, it’s hard to keep designated cutting boards for each type of food. (Just say no to fresh veggies tossed on a board right after a raw steak.) But this hotbed for cross-contamination is essential to keep clean.

Scientists debate whether wood, plastic, or glass makes for a better board: Plastic boards seem safer and easier to clean (because they’re not porous), but once they’re scored from repeated slicing, it’s hard to clean the microscopic grooves.

Wood is more likely to suck bacteria down into its core, but researchers disagree about whether bacteria ever resurface. Bamboo boards absorb less moisture and resist knife scarring,Cutting boards and food safety. (2013). https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/cutting-boards-and-food-safety/ct_index which may be a better option.

Glass and other nonporous materials like marble boards tend to allow less of a germ film to grow on its surface, potentially allowing for less cross-contamination and easier disinfecting.Dantas S, et al. (2018). Cross-contamination and biofilm formation by salmonella enterica serovar enteritidis on various cutting boards. DOI: 10.1089/fpd.2017.2341

What to do: Keep plastic boards clean by regularly running through the dishwasher (or washing with near-boiling water if the dishwasher isn’t an option).

Consider using a dishwasher (or near-boiling water) to wash acrylic, plastic, or glass boards and solid wood boards. Avoid putting laminated boards into the dishwasher.

Let your boards air-dry completely before storing to minimize potential bacteria growth. Also consider having designated boards for each type of food, like one for meats and seafood and another for produce.

But since the research is really mixed, just be sure to replace heavily scarred boards regularly and use hot soapy water frequently.

Drip coffee maker

Your daily cup of Joe may be contributing to the ick factor in your home. Most home coffee makers don’t get hot enough to kill anything growing in the wet, dark environment of the water reservoir or the machine’s internal piping.Vilanova C, et al. (2015). The coffee-machine bacteriome: biodiversity and colonisation of the wasted coffee tray leach. nature.com/articles/srep17163

What to do: Running a 1-to-1 mix of water and white vinegar through the machine once a month may help inhibit the growth of mold and some bacteria. Let half of the mixture run through the machine, then switch it off for an hour before finishing the cycle. And don’t forget to deep-clean the carafe!


Pillows aren’t just packing a solid night’s sleep — it turns out they can also be home to several types of allergy-inducing fungi.Woodcock AA, et al. (2006). Fungal contamination of bedding. DOI: 10.1111/j.1398-9995.2005.00941.x And all those hours spent sweating, shedding skin, and drooling like a sheepdog also create ideal conditions for dust mites,Dust mite allergy: Symptoms & causes. (2019). mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dust-mites/symptoms-causes/syc-20352173 another potential allergy trigger.

What to do: In addition to regularly laundering bedding (specific instructions below), anti-allergen covers can help protect pillows from outside germs getting in and keep the sneezy stuff inside.Carrard A, et al. (2012). House dust mite allergy. DOI: 10.1024/0040-5930/a000281


Just like those allergen-packing pillows, sheets can also hold onto germs, dust mites, and sweat.

If you’re looking for an excuse not to make your bed in the morning, it turns out that airing out your sheets after you get up allows some of the moisture to evaporate. Less moisture means a less cozy environment for dust mites.

What to do: Washing and drying everything on the highest heat available is a good policy, but regular bleaching is a good idea, too. (In fact, studies suggest a good hot wash and dose of bleach will not only kill bacteria on the cloth, but also cleans out the machine so germs aren’t continuously spread around.)Callewaert C, et al. (2015). Bacterial exchange in household washing machines. frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2015.01381/full

Bath mat

Bath mats sit there, soaked with shower water and pressed up against the floor, slowing evaporation and providing the dark, damp environment mold and bacteria love.

Add to that the fact bathroom floors have been shown be one of the most contaminatedKennedy D, et al. (2010). Enteric bacterial contamination of public restrooms. ciriscience.org/a_67-Enteric-Bacterial-Contamination-of-Public-Restrooms parts of the bathroom (toilet bowl excluded, of course) and it’s obvious why we should put some brainpower toward that bath mat.

What to do: Launder mats once per week on the highest heat and with bleach (if possible — defer to the mat’s washing instructions, especially if it has rubber backing). And keep separate from any bedding or clothes.

Wooden mats may be an easier option, since surface disinfectants can replace regular laundering, but it’s important to remember to disinfect the floor to avoid reinfecting a clean mat.

Laundry basket

All the grime from sweaty workout gear, underwear, and bedding sits in that laundry bag, soiling the hamper itself.

What to do: Try using one bag for dirty clothes, and one for the clean stuff, and wash the dirty bag along with the clothes. For hard plastic hampers, use any hard surface disinfectant, but be wary of anything with the potential to discolor (i.e. bleach).

Makeup and makeup brushes

Cosmetics, especially for the eyes, can be a source of bacteria. One study found that within just 3 months of use, 40 percent of tested mascara tubes had some creepy crawlies growing in them.Pack L, et al. (2008). Microbial contamination associated with mascara use. DOI: 10.1016/j.optm.2008.02.011

What to do: A good rule of thumb is to replace eye makeup every 3 months, toss lotions and liquid foundation every 6 months, and get fresh power-based products, lipstick, and nail polish every 2 years.

If anything starts to look or smell funky before then, don’t be afraid to toss it early.


Studies have found that flushing the toilet can spew bathroom-related bacteria into the air.Best EL, et al. (2012). Potential for aerosolization of clostridium difficile after flushing toilets: The role of toilet lids in reducing environmental contamination risk. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhin.2011.08.010 Yuck.

Needless to say, it’s a good idea to store that toothbrush far away from the potential contaminants (and close that lid before flushing!).

What to do: Make sure to rinse toothbrushes thoroughly after use, allow them to dry completely, and replace every 3 to 4 months. UV sanitizers aren’t required, but they can have varying levels of effectiveness.


We shower to get clean, so it’d be silly to get dirty drying off. But reusing damp bath towels could be doing just that. Drying down after the shower doesn’t just get rid of the excess water — it takes with it dead skin cells and bacteria, too (including the dreaded staph infection).Oller A, et al. (2009). Staphylococcus aureus recovery from cotton towels. DOI: 10.3855/jidc.40

What to do: The risks are low if towels are changed out about once a week and are allowed to dry completely between uses.

Contact lenses

Contact lens cases can be a major source of bacteria, often due to inadequate cleaning instructions.Wu Y, et al. (2011). The effectiveness of various cleaning regimens and current guidelines in contact lens case biofilm removal. DOI: 10.1167/iovs.10-6785

What to do: Clean out contact lens cases after each use with contact lens solution and replace it every month (or at least sanitize it by soaking in near-boiling water for a few minutes).

If you’re using a hydrogen peroxide cleaning case, allow fresh solution to sit in the case for 24 hours before use.


Just like anything inserted into your head, those headphones and ear buds take no time at all to collect germs from your ears.

What to do: Using water with electronic accessories is tricky, but audiophiles can clean detachable rubber nubbins (technical term) by soaking them for 15 minutes in a vinegar and water solution and letting them sit for 10 more minutes in water before drying.

For the un-detachable kind, a gentle mixture of soap and water should be used on the plastic exterior, and a clean toothbrush can remove any lint from the grill.

Electronic wipes can also be handy for giving a quick swipe to your electronics in general.


Anyone who drives — or just plans on returning home at the end of the day — probably has a set in their pocket. But who thinks about keeping keys clean? You probably should.

What to do: The fact that many keys are made of brass, a copper alloy, offers some protection because it’s naturally antibacterial.Mehtar S, et al. (2008). The Antimicrobial activity of copper and copper alloys against nosocomial pathogens and mycobacterium tuberculosis isolated from healthcare facilities in the Western Cape: An in-vitro study. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhin.2007.10.009

Occasionally scrub your keys with plain ol’ soap and water or use a disinfectant.


As an accessory that gets handled all the time, handbags are prime for germs and rarely get cleaned.

What to do: Regular cleaning is enough to minimize risk. A purse hanging hook can keep your bag from sitting on floors in public bathrooms and restaurants.

Wipe down leather purses with a disinfectant wipe every few days, and put washable ones through the laundry (or send to the dry cleaner) as often as once per week.


Studies have repeatedly cited mobile phones as risk factors for infection, and we largely have our own unwashed hands to blame.Akinyemi K, et al. (2009). The potential role of mobile phones in the spread of bacterial infections. DOI: 10.3855/jidc.556 It’s not surprise considering how often it’s glued to our hands.

What to do: The clean up is simple: Power down the device once per week (more often during cold and flu season or during a pandemic) and wipe with a disinfectant cloth. Electronic wipes come in handy once again.

Yoga mats

A well-used yoga mat ⁠— or worse, a communal mat ⁠— is likely pretty gross. Who wants to roll around in somebody else’s sweat for an hour? Or even your own old sweat.

What to do: Bringing your own mat to hot yoga may be even more important because of all the nasty fungi and bacteria sweat expels from pores, but bringing a personal mat isn’t much better if it isn’t cared for properly (or if loaned to friends).

To keep it clean, pick a side that will always face up and invest in a yoga towel to keep sweat off the mat itself. And a routine antibacterial wipe swipe is useful.

After every use, make sure to hang mats up so both sides can dry completely (especially in the sun). Periodically scrub mats with a bit of soap and water or a vinegar and water solution.

Gym bag

If it’s regularly being packed with sweaty shirts that have been exposed to all manner of germs from the gym, why don’t we wash it as often as the clothes themselves?

What to do: Consider storing dirty clothes in separate mesh pouches or a resealable plastic bag (just make sure not to forget and let it fester) for transporting.

Empty and air out your bag between uses to limit bacteria growth. But the bag itself is likely getting left on locker room floors, so give it a once-over with disinfectant wipes and send it through the wash on the hottest setting once per week.

Water bottle

Staying hydrated is always recommended, but be wary — illness-inducing bacteria can coat the inside of reusable plastic bottles if they’re not cleaned carefully.

In fact, one study of students’ water bottles found they were so dirty that, had the water come from the tap, the government would have classified it as unfit to drink!Oliphant JA, et al. (2002). Bacterial water quality in the personal water bottles of elementary students. DOI: 10.1007/BF03404571

What to do: Wash it daily in hot water with dish soap. Choose a wide-mouthed bottle for easier cleaning and drying, and opt for a hard material that won’t get scratched during vigorous cleaning (like stainless steel).


Studies have found that shoes can track significant amounts of bacteria indoors, infecting clean floors. And it’s no surprise — sidewalks certainty aren’t regularly disinfected.

What to do: There’s no perfect solution, but an easy fix is instituting a no-shoes policy inside the house. Then launder or wash shoes (at least the soles!) regularly.

TV remote

A hygiene study in hotels found that the remote controls were some of the most heavily contaminated items in the rooms.Remote controls are one of the most contaminated objects in hotel rooms. (2012). sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120617142534.htm It’s no wonder considering most of us plop down and turn on the telly as soon as we walk into a hotel room.

What to do: Wipe down remote controls with any hard surface disinfectant or a handy dandy antibacterial wipe regularly — and especially if it’s been used recently by a person who is ill.

Avoiding germs is nearly impossible, but we can do our best by keeping antibacterial wipes on hand, washing our hands after going out or handling anything suspect or publicly used, and generally keeping our places clean.

When in doubt, wash it, toss it, or give it a sanitize.