The 8 germiest places in the mall
00:54 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Anywhere people gather is filled with bacteria and viruses

Filthiest place in the restroom is actually the sink, experts say

Each key on an ATM contains, on average, 1,200 germs, a study found

Before trying the latest gizmo, quickly wipe it down with a disinfecting wipe  — 

During the craziness of the holidays, the last thing you want is to get sidelined with a cold, flu, stomach bug – or worse. But while you’re checking items off your shopping list, you may be exposing yourself to germs – like flu viruses, E. coli, and staph – that can make you sick.

“Anywhere people gather is filled with bacteria and viruses, and a crowded shopping mall is a perfect example,” says Philip Tierno, Ph.D., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center.

With that in mind, we asked a panel of experts to rank the worst germ hot spots at your local shopping center. Check out the ewww-inducing results – and tips for keeping yourself in the clear. How to sick-proof your winter

1. Restroom sinks

The filthiest area in a restroom (and therefore in the whole mall) isn’t the toilet handle or the doorknob – it’s the sink, our experts say. Bacteria, including E. coli, fester on the faucet and handles because people touch those surfaces right after using the toilet, explains panelist Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona.

“The sink area is a moist environment, so bacteria can survive longer there,” he adds.

Watch out for soap dispensers, too – not only are they handled by many dirty hands, but the soap itself may harbor germs. When Gerba’s team tested liquid soap from refillable dispensers in public bathrooms, they found that one in four contained unsafe levels of bacteria.

Protect yourself: Wash your hands thoroughly after using a public loo: Lather with soap for at least 20 seconds, then rinse well. Use a paper towel to turn off the water and open the door. If there’s no soap or paper towels, kill germs with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, using at least a tablespoon of product.

Gerba also advises avoiding refillable soap dispensers (usually made of clear plastic with a removable lid) and only using liquid soap that comes in a sealed refill; if that’s not an option or you’re not sure, follow up with hand sanitizer. How to stop a cold in its tracks

2. Food court tables

Even if you see the table being wiped down, that doesn’t mean it’s clean, says panelist Elaine Larson, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University: “The rags themselves can actually spread harmful bacteria such as E. coli if they are not changed and washed regularly.”

Protect yourself: Consider stashing a pack of hard-surface disinfecting wipes in your purse so you can swipe the table before you sit down. “Look for ones that contain alcohol or another disinfecting agent in order to make sure you’re killing germs, not just wiping away grime,” Tierno says.

3. Escalator handrails

“In our testing, we have found food, E. coli, urine, mucus, feces, and blood on escalator handrails,” says Gerba. “And where there is mucus, you may also find cold and flu viruses.” Tierno concurs: “We’ve found respiratory flora on handrails,” he says, “which makes sense because people cough into their hands, then touch the rails.”