Unsplash / Clay Banks
And you thought it was the credit card bills that make you sick. As it turns out, the Visa, Discover, Mastercard and debit cards themselves are spreading germs and disease. In a word, they’re filthy, according to finance website LendEDU.com. It conducted a study of citified germ sources, with field research in New York City. LendEDU.com found credit cards weren’t quite as germ-laden as the handles on that city’s rented bicycles, but they did rank high on the list of top germ carriers. Yep, above even New York city subway poles and urinal handles at Penn Station. (Are they saying even the notorious public bathrooms had fewer germs than that credit card in your wallet? Yes.) Once you’re finished freaking out about yet another incidence of hidden germ power (remember light switches and rubber ducks?), it’s good to gain an understanding of how germs get on credit cards and whether you need to worry about them.
The plastic version of dirty money
Just like coins and paper money, credit cards pick up germs as they change hands during transactions or sit on bar tops or restaurant payment trays. Part of the issue is that people who shop or eat and then pay with a credit card are unlikely to wash their hands in between the two activities. For its 2019 study, LendEDU tested many surfaces using a scientific device that generated “germ scores.” To give you an idea, restaurants should have a score of 10 or below to be considered sanitary. On the same scale, credit cards tested had an average germ score that was a filthy 28 times higher: 285 on average for the payment card; 252 average for the front side and 317 for the back. One credit card was the highest germ score among the objects the group tested, with a 1,200 germ score! Even the cleanest card tested registered 48. And in another interesting twist, debit cards were almost 40 points lower on the germ score scale than credit cards, with an average of 243.
Some of the other objects that ranked below credit cards on the germ score scale included coins, which rated an average 136, and NYC subway poles, which scored “just” 68. And if you’re looking for consolation, there are a handful of objects that have higher (meaning worse) germ scores than credit cards. The NYC parking meter is one example, with its 473 average, while the Big Apple’s McDonald’s door handles had enough germs for an average of 664. Imagine the possibilities if you went to one of those McDonald’s and paid with your credit card!.
How to clean a credit card
If all this invisible bacteria talk makes you queasy, it’s fairly simple to take care of the germs on your credit card. As long as you avoid the clothes dryer, which can warp the card or damage the magnetic strip, it’s okay for credit cards to get a bit damp. Clean your card with a little dish detergent and hot water, perhaps adding a tiny splash of chlorine bleach or Lysol to the water. Wipe the card dry with a cloth or paper towel. You can be confident that even the chip and magnetic strip won’t suffer damage from a little moisture, as long as you dry it pretty quickly afterward.
And as for avoiding getting your card so germy in the first place, those tactics are much the same as what you’d do to avoid the flu. Wash your hands before you use the credit card and again after, particularly if you’re paying the bill at a restaurant, where the card changes hands several times. You can also avoid using the card as often by paying with your computer or smartphone. But keep in mind, electronic screens can harbor hidden germs, too!