Gas Stations (and Your Car) Are Germ City—Here’s How to Stay Safe and Clean on the Road

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What if we told you your steering wheel might be harboring more germs than a toilet seat, or that the average gas station pump handle is—wait for it—6,428 times dirtier than public elevator buttons?

Help.

Whether you’re popping downtown to fill up on groceries and gas, or headed out on a family road trip, you’re going to want to maintain a clean car and smart hygiene habits between point A and point B. Think about it. You’ve been keeping your home (and self) spick and span since the coronavirus outbreak—disinfecting surfaces, washing hands thoroughly, wearing a mask in public, and practicing social distancing. So now that parts of the country are opening up and the urge to take a joy ride is becoming harder to resist, it’s time to bring all those responsible practices with you on the road, too. 

RELATED: 7 Things You Should Sanitize Immediately to Avoid Getting Sick

Exactly how germy is your car?

The concept of deep-cleaning the interior of your car—not just giving the exterior a good shine—goes way beyond protecting from the coronavirus. In general, cars are insanely dirty, harboring, on average, somewhere around 700 bacterial strains, including staphylococcus (though, remember, many bacteria are relatively harmless). 

In a recent survey of 1,000 drivers, CarRentals.com reported that, despite the griminess of most vehicles, 32 percent of drivers only clean their cars once a year. What’s more, 20 percent regularly eat in the car (and who hasn’t?). But what might seem like harmless road trip snacking can be potentially harmful: spilled food and drinks + time and a stuffy car = bacteria heaven

CarRentals.com also did some research to find the average number of colony-forming units (CFU)—aka the amount of bacteria per square centimeter—on cars’ most commonly touched surfaces and compared those to the CFU count on other public surfaces. Ready to cringe? 

The average steering wheel was found to have 629 CFU per square centimeter, which is:

  • Six times dirtier than an average cell phone screen (100 CFU)
  • Four times dirtier than a public toilet seat (172 CFU
  • Two times dirtier than public elevator buttons at (CFU)

Some of the other germiest spots in the average vehicle, according to these findings, include commonly touched surfaces like the cupholders (506 CFU), seatbelt (403 CFU), interior door handles (256 CFU), gear shift (115 CFU), and audio volume (99). 

Let’s just say that’s the last time we’ll be eating french fries off the dashboard.

RELATED: 7 Common Hand-Washing Mistakes to Avoid

Gas stations are germ-central.

Pumping gas is routine for any driver, but we all need to be smart about it. Don’t forget how many other people have used those buttons, handles, and other touch points before you (likely thousands). Clocking in at an eye-popping 2 million CFU of germs, the average gas pump handle was found to be 6,428 times dirtier than public elevator buttons and 11,835 times dirtier than a public toilet seat. But dirtier still, the button for regular, unleaded gas takes the cake in this analysis with 3.2 million CFU, compared to the premium buttons with 2 million CFU.

RELATED: Don’t Know the Difference Between Sanitizing and Disinfecting? You Might Not Be Cleaning Properly

Stay safe on the road, at gas stations and everywhere in between.

If you’re certifiably freaked out at the moment, take a pause. Remember that gas stations (and your car) have always been dirty—long before the virus outbreak and long before you read all these stats. You’ve been driving and pumping gas and living to tell the tale for years. Just consider this a wakeup call to adopt some sanitation best practices on the road, just in case. To get started, read these engineer-approved car-cleaning tips from Ford, plus some input from Beaumont Hospital Infection Prevention in Michigan on how to stay safe at gas stations, roadside rest stops, and other mid-drive destinations.

1. Have hand sanitizer at the ready.

The pocket of your door panel, center console, or even a bag/purse are smart locations for hand sanitizer (make sure it has at least 60 percent alcohol content). Clean your hands with it every time you’re done at the store, restaurant, or gas station. 

Can’t find any at the store? Here’s how to make your own hand sanitizer. Avoid touching your face as much as possible, but especially before disinfecting your hands post-pump.

2. Keep sanitizing wipes handy, too. 

Give these major touch points a sanitizing swipe every time you get in the car: the steering wheel, temp control knobs, gear shifter, touch screen, door handles (inside and out), arm rests, and cup holders.

3. Store a clean face mask or two in the car.

Keep a couple clean cloth face masks over your sun visor so you have one handy for unexpected errands or pit stops, whether to the grocery store or a rest stop restroom.

RELATED: Need a Cloth Face Mask? Here’s Where to Buy Them Right Now

4. Use disposable gloves to pump your gas. 

Ford experts suggest wearing gloves for touching gas pump handles and car wash wands. But doing so is pointless unless you remove and dispose of them properly directly afterwards using to avoid contamination. Take extra precaution by sanitizing hands afterward.

5. Keep payments as clean as possible.

The stuff in our wallets—and in cash registers—is, well, gross, to put it plainly. Cash is notoriously dirty, while credit and debit cards are shockingly germ-infested in their own right. (But good news, you can clean your credit cards safely!). Ford and Beaumont agree that if you have to use cash, try your best to give exact change to avoid a contaminated money swap. “Or tell them to keep the change,” Ford says. “Better yet, use an app to order and pay in advance,” if you’re stopping at a fast food joint, for instance.

6. Deep-clean the interior.

At the end of a longer road trip—or even if it’s just been awhile—give the interior of your car a solid sudsing. Use a sanitizing wipe to clean the seats, gear shift, steering wheel, and door handles. CarRentals.com says to replace the air filter and spray into the intake vent to  remove airborne germs in the carbon cabin. Wash the seats with car upholstery shampoo and clean or replace the floor mats. And don’t forget to disinfect your keys! This handheld accessory is just begging to be cleaned on the regular. 

For more car cleaning tips, roll up your sleeves and follow this guide to deep-cleaning your car routinely.

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