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Bathroom baddies: seven germy hotspots you can’t neglect anymore

2015-06-24

Ah bathrooms! Those magical chambers in your home that relieve you of your most primal burdens—but they also present you with a lurking menace: germs.

Ah germs! Those intrepid microbes that carry out a multitude of tasks—from generating the oxygen we breathe to becoming viruses that can kill us.

To be fair, most microorganisms are harmless – in fact you’ve got more microbes on your hand than there are people on the Earth. But the wet, damp ambience of your bathroom makes it a hotspot for the menacing kind of germs, and it’s vital to your mental and physical health to purify those germy hotspots – especially if you have pets and children in the house or if a family member has recently been ill.

For the sake of this article, we’re going to assume that you regularly clean the most obvious offenders – the toilet, tub, and sink. But are there things you don’t pay attention to that need a second thought?

1. Toothbrush holder: The place you put your toothbrush is the germiest place in your bathroom, according to a study by NSF International, a U.S. public health organization. They took swabs from the homes of volunteer families and tested them for yeast, mould and bacteria strains. Toothbrush holders also contain a hundred times more microorganisms than toilet seats.

It doesn’t stop there. It was on the surface of one such holder that scientists found a mystery bug. The never-before-seen germ was a new bacterium, Klebsiella michiganensis, a family member of E. coli, which is generally found in fecal matter.

Named after the state of Michigan where it was found, K michiganensis has a slimy surface that causes other bacteria to stick to it and form colonies. The happy community then blankets itself with a viscous coating to form biofilms, which are difficult to disinfect and a common cause of persistent infections. Where did K michiganensis come from? Scientists deduced it originated from a particle that was sprayed out from the toilet in a small bathroom, or brushed off a pet and then found the perfect moist, dim conditions to flourish.

If bacteria aren’t motivation enough for you to clean your toothbrush holder, we have one word for you: scum. Never mind germs and bugs, even the most resilient of stomachs will turn at the mere sight of the greenish-white residue collected in your toothbrush cup.

Robert Donofrio, director of NSF International's research centre, writes that the best way to clean your toothbrush holder is to stick it in your dishwasher once or twice a week. You could also clean it with hot soapy water if it’s an open mug or cup. If you happen to own one of those sealed ceramic pots with holes for the toothbrush where you can’t see or clean inside, considering getting rid of it altogether.

2. Faucets and doorknobs: Taps are the second-germiest spots in your washroom, according to the NSF International study (though they also said your bathroom taps are far less infested than your kitchen sink.) Hand washing may be the number one way to prevent infections from spreading, but you can’t trust everyone to wash their hands properly all the time, especially unsupervised children.

These inadequately washed hands then flush toilets, switch lights off and open doors, leaving behind all sorts of bio souvenirs. A daily wipe-down of all high-touch surfaces with a non-toxic disinfectant will do the trick, and it shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes.

3. Your towels: Speaking of high-touch surfaces, your hand towel is the perfect spot for germs to gather. For one thing, you plant bacteria in it each time you use a towel with improperly washed hands. And then, the towel provides the three most important elements for germs to multiply: moisture, warmth and organic material like dead skin for bacteria and fungi to feed on.

Combine dirty towels with cuts and scrapes on your skin and you’re setting yourself up for a nasty infection. Superficial fungal infections like ringworm, jock itch, and athlete’s foot can spread by sharing towels, so be extra careful if a family member or roommate is being treated for a fungus.

In a big household you should be laundering your hand towels every other day in hot water. Your personal bath towels can last a few days longer, as long as you dry them completely between uses. Use rods rather than hooks to dry out your bath towels, and if possible, hang them somewhere outside the bathroom.

4. Your loofah: Like towels, your loofah is another deliciously damp spot for bacteria and fungi to thrive. Authors of one study wrote that since loofah sponges can serve as a reservoir for the transmission of potentially pathogenic species to the human skin, they must be regularly decontaminated with hypochlorite (10%) bleach. If that sounds harsh to you, dispose of your loofah every month and get a new one. Remember not to use your loofah on your face or private area and make sure you dry it away from the bathing area, so it isn’t getting wet again each time someone takes a shower.

5. Your showerhead: By now you’re probably thinking, “can’t I even take a shower without harming myself?” The answer is yes and no. In 2009, University of Colorado, Boulder researchers studying the microbiology of indoor environments swabbed 45 showerheads and found enough Mycobacterium avium concentrations to conclude that showerheads may present a significant potential exposure to “aerosolized opportunistic pathogens” – or a spray of germs that are always around but don’t always hurt you.

These bacteria are one of a collection of organisms collectively called Mycobacterium avium complex or MAC, that can cause serious pulmonary disease, Boulder researcher Dr. Norman Pace, says.

But MAC infections only affect those who have conditions that compromise cellular immunity, such as AIDS patients, or those with chronic lung disease.

“I think in the case of individuals who are of normal constitution and not elderly or not drug-addicted or not HIV-infected or the many cases of immune compromise that one can cite, I think that if one is not particularly compromised, there's not a particular problem. If, however, there is compromise, which you may not even be aware of at any given time, then there's an issue,” Pace told NPR in an interview.

If you’re worried about MAC infections, it’s best to sterilize your showerhead regularly, and think about switching to baths over showers if your immune system is severely impaired.

Another reason to clean your showerhead regularly is mineral deposits that could cause clogging, which makes for weak water pressure and an unsatisfying shower. These clogs can also cause water to spray in odd directions, hampering your ability to keep a dry, fungus-free bathroom.

6. The shower curtain: The mould on your dirty shower curtain could be exacerbating your allergies. Mould allergy symptoms are similar to those of other nasal allergies— sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose, and itchy, watery eyes. The soap scum on your shower curtain and the tiles around your shower area can harbour mould, so wipe the tiles down daily with a cloth and disinfectant, and throw your shower curtain in the washer every few weeks. (You can wash plastic curtains in the machine, too.) Make sure you air out your bathroom after a shower, and keep the shower curtain closed so that it can dry out between uses.

7. The floor: If you flush the toilet with the lid up, and face it, most of us still do, bacteria from the bowl are sprayed up into the air and after several hours finally settle on the floor—along with moisture droplets that encourage fungi.

Be sure to disinfect your floors on a regular basis to avoid bacterial and fungus infections like athletes foot. If you can’t make the time or have the inclination to wipe down your floors every few days, at least make sure you keep a separate set of slippers for the bathroom (don’t walk around your house with them.)

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