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Eww! New Study Finds Expensive Hotels Have More Germs

You may not like whom you’re sharing your hotel with.

A new study titled “Hotel Hygiene Exposed” finds that the average hotel room is teaming with more icky bacteria than a typical home, airplane, or school. It’s almost enough to tempt a traveling germophobe to sleep on the airport bench instead.

“We’re definitely not trying to scare anyone,” Emily Pierce, project manager for Travelmath, which conducted the study, tells Yahoo Travel. “We wanted to know just how many bacteria we could find on common surfaces in the hotel rooms.”

Teams armed with cotton swabs, plastic bags, and strong stomachs tested rooms in nine different hotels. Three-star, four-star, and five-star hotels in a variety of locations were included in the study.

The result? Not only did Travelmath find that hotel rooms had ample populations of those microscopic creepy-crawlies, they discovered that four-star and five-star hotel rooms tend to be dirtier than less luxurious three-star hotels.

“That was definitely kind of a surprise for us, because the five-star hotels are known for those extra amenities, the extra service, the extra luxury,” says Cristina Lachowyn, outreach manager on behalf of Travelmath. “So one would assume that the extra money you’re spending for those extra stars would also go into housekeeping!”

In the Travelmath study, each team swabbed the same four surfaces in each hotel room they visited: the bathroom counter, the remote control, the desk, and the phone. According to the study description, Travelmath “tested for the presence of various types of bacteria (including bacilli and cocci), yeast, and gram-positive rods (bacteria that cause various ailments, such as skin infections and pneumonia) and gram-negative rods (bacteria that cause respiratory and other infections).”

The results prove that luxury doesn’t necessarily buy cleanliness. Here’s a breakdown:

1. Bathroom counters

A study cited by WebMD found the average household bathroom had 452 bacteria per square inch. But Travelmath finds hotel bathrooms are far dirtier: Three-star hotels have an average of 320,007 colony-forming units (CFU) per square inch; four-star hotels an average of 2,534,773 CFU per square inch; five-star hotels an average of 1,011,670 CFU per square inch. The overall hotel average is 1,288,817 CFU per square inch.

Travelmath found the bathroom counters in three-star hotels were the cleanest of the bunch (with clean, of course, being a relative term where bathrooms are concerned). Lachowyn speculates that the ornate, intricate bathrooms you find in four-star and five-star hotels&mdashwith their designer sinks that look like artistic sculptures—might be harder to clean than the basic counter of your average three-star hotel. “In most of the hotels I’ve been in, the bathroom counter is pretty simple,” she says. “It’s a flat, open surface so it’s very easy with a swipe of disinfectant to clean it.”

Pierce suspects maybe these three-star hotels are just cleaned better. “In recent years, some of the bigger chain hotels that have a lot of three-star properties have rolled out a standard cleaning process, and maybe even develop new technologies or better ways for cleaning,” she says.

2. Remote controls

You’d think that with the variety of luxury amenities offered in four-star and five-star hotels, everyone would be too busy being pampered and fed to watch TV. But it seems like lots of grubby hands are handling remote controls. Like bathroom counters, Travelmath found the remote controls in some luxury hotels tend to be on the gnarly side.

Consider that University of Arizona researcher Charles Gerba tells that the average household remote has a bacteria count of 17,000 per square inch. In contrast, hotel remotes, according to Travelmath’s study, rated as such: Three-star hotels have an average of 232,733 CFU per square inch; four-star hotels an average of 1,400,027 CFU per square inch; and five-star hotels an average of 2,002,300 CFU per square inch. The overall hotel average is 1,211,687 CFU per square inch.

Once again, it appears the higher up the hotel luxury scale you go, the dirtier the remote controls get. Why are so many people watching TV in their luxury hotel rooms? (And, seriously, what are they doing with their hands before they change the channel?)

“Maybe they’re business travelers,” suggests Lachowyn, “and when they come home from a long day of meetings, or work, or conferences, or whatever, they might want to crash [in front of] a big-screen TV.”

“It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not necessarily how much people are using these items overall,” adds Pierce, “but maybe how well they’re being cleaned after the stay.” Yeah, but how many times have we ever seen a hotel housekeeper—or anyone else, for that matter—clean a remote control?

“How often do I clean my remote control at home?” Lachowyn asks herself. “Now that I think about it, possibly never.” That could be one thing her place has in common with top-ranked hotels.

3. The desks

You can put your laptop on the hotel desk, but think twice about putting your sandwich there. Desks can get filthy, especially if you stay in four-star hotels. Travelmath found: Three-star hotels have an average of 4,687 CFU per square inch; four-star hotels an average of 1,800,003 CFU per square inch; and five-star hotels an average of 40,030 CFU per square inch. The overall hotel average is 604,907 CFU per square inch.

Once again here, three-star hotels came out the cleanest. But strangely enough, four-star hotels were the dirtiest by far. Pierce believes the business traveler factor may be at work here, too. “The desks could remain virtually unused in a three-star hotel,” she says. “But a lot of four-star hotels are host to business travelers and they may be eating, drinking, and working at that desk. Maybe sleeping. I think there’s definitely some potential for more contamination in those style hotels.”

4. Hotel phones

Unless you’re Don Draper calling John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Holly Golightly to meet you at the Rainbow Room in 1961, you’re probably not even using your hotel room phone at all. “We have cellphones now,” says Lachowyn. “People just aren’t touching the [hotel] phones.”

Still, the Travelmath team swabbed the hotel room phones. Here’s what they found: Three-star hotels have an average of 11,403 CFU per square inch; four-star hotels an average of 137 CFU per square inch; and five-star hotels an average of 1,217 CFU per square inch. The overall hotel average is 4,252 CFU per square inch.

This is one area where three-star hotels are dirtier than their higher-class counterparts. In fact, the 11,403 CFU per square-inch bacteria count that Travelmath found on three-star hotel phones is roughly similar to the 11,020 count the University of Arizona’s Dr. Gerba reported on the average mobile phone in his widely cited study. (Which is strange, because people generally don’t take their three-star hotel phones with them into the bathroom to read Facebook.)

What germs are we talking about here?

The hotels tended to be dominated by lots of different germs. Travelmath found yeast was the big problem for bathrooms in three-star hotels, where the remote controls tended to be contaminated by Bacillus spp, which is linked to various infections, including respiratory and gastrointestinal ones. Bacillus spp also appears in four-star hotels, specifically on the remote and telephone. In five-star hotels, the phone was crawling with cocci.

As scary-sounding as that may be, there’s no need to go trying to book space in a hermetically sealed bubble during your next trip. Remember, if you’re reasonably healthy or not too young or too old, chances are your body does a good job of fighting off nasty bacteria on its own. And you can aid the anti-bacterial struggle yourself.

“There really are simple ways to avoid being negatively affected,” says Pierce. “Simple things like washing your hands can really take away the worry. Just practice common hygiene practices on a consistent basis.” Adds Lachowyn: “If you look at the distribution of the bacteria [in the study], most are very easy to wipe with one of those disinfectant wipes or using hand sanitizer.”

The study has the Travelmath people changing their own hotel habits. “I might wipe down the remote the next time I stay at a hotel,” says Lachowyn, “or be mindful of washing my hands or using hand sanitizer after I touch it. I think it’s more about being mindful of the fact that there is bacteria everywhere you go.”

And like you, it seems bacteria would rather go to four-star and five-star hotels.

—Sid Lipsey

This article was originally published by Yahoo! Travel under the headline Eww! New Study Finds Epensive Hotels Have More Germs. It is reprinted here with permission.

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(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

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