Most people already know which places generally hold the most likelihood of petri dish-level germs: studio yoga mats, public restrooms, subway seats, free weights at the gym—AKA those places that have a revolving door of random users.
But once you make it through the landmines of the outside world and into your office, you’re officially safe from the worst of it, right? Not so fast: According to microbiologist Joe Rubino, you might only be getting started.
“The things that then get overlooked are often the dirtiest: light switches, door knobs, cabinet handles.”
“Just like in your home, people are hyper-aware of the germs that can accumulate in their bathrooms and countertops and therefore clean them rigorously,” he explains. “But the things that then get overlooked are often the dirtiest: light switches, door knobs, cabinet handles.”
With flu season upon us, I invited Rubino to Well+Good’s office to do a little testing of our surfaces and handles.
Keep reading to find out the dirty truth—and get his tips for keeping your own space clean.
The scientific logistics
When Rubino arrives at the office, he comes with an ATP meter in tow—a device that’s commonly used by cleaning pros. Interesting note: The meter doesn’t directly measure the germs, but instead the surfaces that are more likely to be filled with adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule found in all animal, vegetable, bacteria, yeast, and mold cells that are often the most covered with them. (Got that?)
After an area is swiped with the Q-Tip-type swab, it’s placed into the ATP meter and—after an exciting 15-second countdown—a “score” is given. A perfectly clean surface gets a score of 1-25. An eh score is 50-100—and should probably be wiped down soon. 100-plus? Pull out the (all-natural) cleaner ASAP.
“Even though it seems gross, it’s no reason to panic,” insists Rubino. “Just clean the areas and wash your hands diligently—you’ll be fine.”
Uncovering the dirty truth
Before I get into the (not-so-clean) truth, know this: Well+Good HQ is located in a shared working space—and we have a nightly cleaning crew. To set the scale for the de-germ session, Rubino first goes to the kitchen sink because, as he explains, it’s often the dirtiest part of a shared office. He swabs underneath the metal drains—fortunately, my officemates and I aren’t spending too much time down there—pops the swab into the machine, and after 15 seconds it spits out a score: 1391. (Yikes!)
He swears that high number isn’t uncommon for the location, so we move on. The shared filtered water dispenser gets an 8—”surprising for the amount of usage,” notes Rubino. The fridge door handle is 529: “Fairly standard.” But the worst culprit of all? The handle to the shared cabinet that houses all the cups: 1443. “It’s always the things that people forget about cleaning!” Rubino explains, as my most recent hydration breaks flash through my mind.
Then, we move over to my desk. (Gulp.) I let Rubino roam free, testing out all of the normal culprits: my laptop touchpad, the handle to my desk drawer, and the very front of desk—the area that’s most-trafficked by my hands. While the scores aren’t as alarming as the cabinet handle, they’re still a little higher than I’d like to admit to the public: laptop pad, 344; drawer handle, 163; front of desk, 282. (Eek, I have lunch on it every day!)
The final countdown
The last place Rubino suggests we visit is the bathroom and main light switches—which surprise him the most. “Usually this is where the germs manifest, but it’s often a place that people think to clean the most—so it could really go either way,” he says.
The light switches for the floor score a 42. (One point for the cleaning crew!) The bathroom sink handles, 162. The outdoor bathroom door handle, 252. Semi-high, but not bad, Rubino says. (Phew.)
The verdict: No need to go into full-on panic mode, according to the germ-pro. (Even he holds onto the subway poles when he rides, as long as can wash his hands as soon as he’s off.)
“It’s impossible to avoid germs entirely—it’s part of life,” he says. “Regular washing, wiping, and sanitizing, however, can help office workers reduce their rates of cold, flu, and stomach illness by up to 80 percent.”
So it might be time to give that light switch or cabinet a quick cleaning—and whatever you do, stay away from your shared kitchen drain.
Give your office the once-over it (probably) needs with these all-natural disinfecting products. Or try one of these eight better-for-you household cleaning brands.