By Eric Swedlund
Arizona Daily Star
February 14, 2007
Bacteria are far more abundant at people's desks than office restrooms, and it's the work areas of the fairer sex that harbor the most germs.
Women have three to four times the number of bacteria in, on and around their desks, phones, computers, keyboards, drawers and personal items as men do, according to a new study from University of Arizona germ guru Charles Gerba, professor of soil, water and environmental sciences.
"I thought for sure men would be germier," Gerba said. "But women have more interactions with small children and keep food in their desks. The other problem is makeup."
Women's offices typically looked cleaner, but women tend to have more knickknacks on their desks.
Makeup cases are the top bacteria spot for women's offices, with the phone, purse and desk drawer also common germ homes. Using hand lotion and makeup is a top culprit, with lotion often trapping germs and transferring them, and makeup resulting in a lot of mouth- and face-touching.
Another top cause Gerba found was food, with 75 percent of women keeping munchies in a desk drawer.
"I was really surprised how much food there was in a woman's desk," he said. "If there's ever a famine, that's the first place I'll look for food."
But the worst germ offender in the office overall is men's wallets, which rate far worse than purses, and not just because women switch purses regularly.
"It's in your back pocket where it's nice and warm, it's a great incubator for bacteria," Gerba said, before offering a bit of advice for women. "The next time you go through your husband's wallet, be careful."
Another hot spot for bacteria in men's offices: the personal digital assistant.
"Men tend to play with their Palm Pilots more," Gerba said. "I think they're playing video games or something."
Gerba conducted the study in more than 100 offices on the UA campus and in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oregon and Washington, D.C. The $40,000 study was commissioned by the Clorox Co.
"We're living in the information age, and most of us are working in offices today and most of us haven't developed a concept of office hygiene," he said. "People don't really clean their personal space, and janitor crews won't touch it, so you see a lot of germ buildup."
The average office desktop has 400 times more bacteria than the average office toilet seat, Gerba said.
Gerba and research assistant Sheri Maxwell sampled the same sites in each office, including the phone, desktop, computer mouse, keyboard, bottom of desk drawer, handle of desk drawer and personal items like PDAs, wallets and makeup cases. They analyzed the total numbers of bacteria and different types. Staph bacteria are more common around men's work spaces, Gerba said.
"One of the problems we've seen is people just use a wet paper towel and spread the germs around," he said.
The proper way to keep a desk clean and germ-free is by using disinfectant wipes, Gerba said. People should avoid spraying disinfectant directly on a phone or keyboard, and using soap and water leaves bacteria behind. Hand sanitizer can also keep germs down.
"You don't have to go crazy with it, but with the key areas, desktops, phones and keyboards probably need to be disinfected once in a while," he said.
People who reported using a disinfectant had 25 percent fewer bacteria in their offices than those who didn't, Gerba said. Once-a-day use should be sufficient.
For his next study, Gerba has his eyes on the teeth-marked writing implements pervasive in the workplace.
"I'm really interested in pencils and pens, because from our information it's the second-most-common thing you put in your mouth after food," he said. "I'd like to go around and start collecting."
- Updated: February 21, 2007