The older I get, the more I realize the majority of my habits are inherited from my mother (for better or worse). Growing up, my mom’s bathroom counter was constantly cluttered with empty, lipstick-smudged coffee mugs. Now that I’m an adult, I find myself bringing my morning coffee into the bathroom as I get ready for the day, too. I never really thought much of it until this past year, at a time when finding things we can do to reduce our exposure to germs has been top of mind.
While the bathroom may not be the dirtiest room in most homes—according to the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), that title goes to the kitchen—surprisingly, some of the germiest spots in the bathroom can be found on or near the sink. So just how many germs are lingering near that cup of coffee I place on my countertop each morning—and could it actually make me sick? While experts don’t have a definitive answer, there are a few things to take into consideration if you, too, drink morning brew in the bathroom.
These are the germiest places in the bathroom
If you were asked to name the germiest place in the bathroom, you’d probably say the toilet, right? While aerosols from the toilet can linger in the air for roughly 12 minutes after flushing, the dirtiest surface is very, very close to something you put in your mouth multiple times per day. Surprise! It’s your toothbrush holder.
Microbiologist Lisa Yakas, M.S., consumer safety expert at NSF International, notes these are the germiest places in the bathroom (according to the 2011 NSF Household Germ Study):
Bathroom light switch
A lot of these surfaces are high-touch areas, making it even easier for germs to transfer from surface to skin (and vice versa). One thing the bathroom has working in its favor as a germ breeding ground that the rest of the house doesn’t have? Moisture. Because of this, leading public health researcher Charles P. Gerba, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology and environmental science at the University of Arizona, notes that the sink is actually a breeding ground for germs, as well as towels (especially hand towels, which are used more frequently throughout the day than bath towels).
“[There are] more likely more serious germs in the bathroom,” adds Dr. Gerba. “Some viruses that cause diarrhea need very low numbers to infect people and are more likely to be in the restroom area.”
Here’s how germs spread in the bathroom
Of course, moisture and aerosols aren’t the only cause for concern. Marilyn C. Roberts, Ph.D., a Fulbright Global Scholar and professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington, notes that you’ll find skin bacteria, in addition to the fecal bacteria, mold and microbes. Because your hands are what come into the most contact with these touch points, improper hand washing is one of the easiest ways to spread germs from the bathroom to other areas of the house.
“The biggest issues are [people] not washing their hands after using the toilet, thus potential to spread bathroom bacteria to the rest of the house,” explains Dr. Roberts. “There is some data to show that [tablets] and phones can be contaminated from hands, but limited-to-no data that these objects are able to transmit microbes and cause infections. [However,] you will get your electronics dirty if you do this.”
When it comes to the vanity and sink, specifically, Yakas notes that you’ll find organisms including coliform bacteria, E. coli, yeast/mold and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). These can cause illness in those with weakened immune systems—”like the young, the elderly, pregnant women and individuals with compromised immune systems”—and can be spread via droplets in the air or lingering on surfaces.
Read this if you drink your morning coffee in the bathroom
So what does this mean for sipping your morning cup of coffee while you straighten your hair? Yakas admits there is no definitive data, but follows up with this: “When in doubt, leave it out (of the bathroom).”
If you have to multitask and getting your morning dose of caffeine can only be consumed in the reflection of the vanity mirror, there are a few things you can do to make sure your mug isn’t just another breeding ground for bathroom germs:
Use a container with a ‘sip hole’ cover.
This won’t completely eliminate germs transferring to your cup, of course, but if you have a closed container that has the extra barrier of a lid that flips to cover the ‘sip hole,’ cleaning your hands before you open and close that flap can help reduce the germs coming into contact with your lips, mouth and drink itself. If you’re drinking water, a water bottle with a lid can have the same effect. This isn’t a perfect solution, unfortunately. “No matter where you are, if it’s a real germy spot, there could be cross-contamination risk,” notes Yakas.
Keep your coffee out of the bathroom when people in your house are sick.
This should be done at least until they are no longer contagious or—if they are experiencing diarrhea—until it resolves. “[If] someone is sick in the house and shares the same bathroom then it does increase the potential for increased exposure,” explains Dr. Roberts. “Some data from hospital settings show that bathrooms can be a source of infectious agents and can spread to roommates if not adequately cleaned.”
Some other ways to keep bathroom germs at bay
Now that we have you horrified at how much dirtier your bathroom is than you may have originally thought, there are a few more things you can do to stop the spread of germs from the bathroom—other than washing your hands.
Stop bringing your phone into the bathroom.
That thing you do when you take a bath and balance your iPad on your toilet seat to watch a movie? Not a good idea, either. If you can’t live without TikTok on the toilet, clean your device. (You can keep some extra disinfecting wipes in the bathroom specifically for this.)
Regularly launder your towels.
You may think your hand towels are clean because you dry your freshly washed hands on them, but that moisture is a breeding ground (and airborne particles can make their way to your towels, too). Dr. Gerba advises changing and washing towels—which get loaded with fecal bacteria—every 3-4 days.
Close the toilet lid before you flush.
Dr. Gerba is one of the researchers to thank for the visual of poop particles spraying themselves all over the bathroom. “Studies have shown that flushing open toilets can spray a bacterial mist or aerosol into the air,” reaffirms Yakas. “It’s a good idea to keep the toilet seat cover closed when you flush, especially if there is an open coffee mug or teacup—or any food or drink—nearby.”
Eliminate excess moisture.
“Showers can grow mold and bacteria, especially if there is a lot of moisture left in the room after bathing and in certain parts of the country,” confirms Dr. Roberts. “This can cause asthma, especially in young children.” If you have one, use your bathroom fan regularly or open a window (if the weather allows and won’t just add more moisture to the room) to help dry out the space.
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