By Brian Vanhooker
You’re sitting at home, eyes glued to the screen as you binge through the latest season of the hottest new TV show. You hit the rewind button and go back 30 seconds, then you crank the volume to try to understand that last bit of forensic science they just threw at you. “That’s a lot of DNA!” you mutter to yourself, impressed, as you return the TV to normal volume and sit back in your recliner.
At no point during this process does it ever occur to you that you’ve got your own forensic crime scene right there between your grubby fingers.
Just think about it: Have you ever cleaned your remote? Probably not. Yet you use it every day, multiple times a day. You likely eat with it, you may even fall asleep watching TV and drool on it, yet you never think to wipe that thing down. Even if you did think to clean it, it’s pretty much impossible to do so thoroughly, since you’d have to get the whole surface, every button (except for those six buttons that you don’t know what they do), and you’d have to clean in the cracks around every button, all while not getting the thing so wet that you bust it.
Given all this, just how gross is your remote control? Well, it really depends on where you’re using it. At home, things aren’t quite so bad, relatively speaking. Citing a study by the Journal of Infection Prevention, The Germ Files author Jason Tetro says that for a TV remote, “The values [of bacteria] are relatively small in comparison to say, a kitchen sponge.” In the 2012 international study, commonly touched surfaces were evaluated on whether they had low, moderate or high bacterial growth, or none at all. Consistently, the TV remote was among the cleanest surfaces tested, whereas the dirtiest were kitchen sponges and the kitchen tap. This was especially true in the American homes that they tested in New York and New Jersey, where the TV remote was the single cleanest object of the ones tested.
So how come, with such regular usage and irregular cleaning, the remote is cleaner than so many other items? “Even though we think the remote control is a high touch surface, we’re not smearing our hands all over them,” Tetro explains. “Usually, you use it for a few seconds and then put it down. The potential for large contamination isn’t really all that high.” Better still, he explains that most of the stuff on it doesn’t live long off the body, so after a few hours, it’s fairly harmless. “Unless you intend on licking the device, you’re probably not going to be in much trouble,” Tetro jokes.
Still, being cleaner than everything else doesn’t mean it’s actually clean. Tetro notes that in that study, they found the following on remotes:
- Staphylococcus epidermidis, a skin bacteria that isn’t harmful.
- Staphylococcus aureus, a natural human bacteria in our respiratory tract that can cause skin infections and pneumonia.
- Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacteria from soil that isn’t really harmful unless you have an open wound.
- E. coli, bacteria from poop that can give you diarrhea and infections.
- Klebsiella pneumoniae, a bacteria from poop that can cause pneumonia and urinary tract infections.
- Enterococcus faecalis, more poop bacteria that can cause UTIs.
This means that if you’re sick, that remote isn’t quite so harmless, especially considering most people just turn into TV zombies when they’re under the weather. A 2008 study by the University of Virginia found that 60 percent of the households they studied had left cold germs on the remote. Another study done in 2009/2010 found that the TV remote and children’s toys were the most likely item to have the flu virus, which was in about eight percent of the 108 homes tested.
Things get worse when you leave your home, too — much worse. A 2005 studyby the University of Arizona’s Chuck Gerba found that in hospital rooms, the TV remote was the single highest carrier of bacteria in the whole room, easily beating out the call button, the door handle or any part of the toilet. In this study of 15 hospital rooms, the standard remote had about 320 bacteria on the whole thing, and among that bacteria was the antibiotic resistant MRSA, which is what causes you to get a staph infection. While often times it can be harmless, in a hospital, MRSA can be deadly.
While probably less life-threatening, your hotel room remote control is easily the most disgusting of all the remotes you’re likely to touch. Of course, when staying in a hotel room, we all expect to be sleeping in a bed of dried fluids, that’s a given, but we try to get our minds off of this by watching a bit of television (maybe not this bit of television).
Sadly, that remote is probably worse than the bed: In a 2016 study entitled “Hotel Hygiene Exposed,” nine hotels of various ratings were examined for whatever gross stuff was on a few select surfaces (the remote, bathroom counter, phone and desk). When they averaged the results together, the remote was just barely edged out by the bathroom counter as the dirtiest surface and, in the five-star hotels they looked at, it took the top spot.
On average, the remotes they studied had 1,211,687 CFU per square inch. CFU stands for “colony forming bacteria,” which is the the “number of viable bacteria cells within a sample,” the study explains. That bacteria consisted of:
- Bacillus spp, which is a typical environmental bacteria from people and soil.
- Gram-positive rods, which can carry things like MRSA and are very resistant to antibiotics.
- Gram-negative rods, which can come from human feces.
If that’s not enough for you, another study in 2014 by Gerba found that, of the 14 hotels they studied, a third of the remotes they looked at had fecal matter on them and one-fifth of them had detectable semen. Gross.
So, is there anything you can do about this electronic cesspool? Fortunately, there is. At home, you can get something called a Clean Remote, which has a smooth surface where the numbers are below the pushpad. Even cheap hotels have endorsed the product because it’s so much easier to clean. Aside from that, Tetro says that you can give your home remote a wipe down with disinfectant wipes regularly, especially if someone has a cold.
As for hotel rooms and hospitals, either thoroughly wipe that remote down with disinfectant wipes, or just don’t touch anything at all.