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How Clean Are Your Hotel and Airbnb Stays?

Written by Jackson Lindeke


When planning a trip, a number of factors may go into picking your accommodations: price, location, amenities, and cleanliness. However, our hygiene standards may change based on the price or star rating. But can we always depend on the price or star rating to determine how clean a hotel or Airbnb is before getting there?

To find out, we swabbed three hotels and three Airbnbs ranging from 1- to 5-star accommodations to see just how clean those offerings are. Curious to see which accommodation tends to be dirtier, or which parts of the room might be harboring the most germs? Find out below.

Putting Bedrooms Under the Microscope

Like it or not, germs are everywhere, and not all bacteria are the same. Some can make you sick with minimal exposure, so it’s crucial to be aware of the surfaces prone to bacteria, especially when staying at a hotel or Airbnb. It’s also important to note that we were unable to locate a 1-star Airbnb, so we selected an Airbnb that was unrated and cheaper than our 2-star hotel.

With a focus on the bed area, we found the average Airbnb had nearly seven times more bacteria than a hotel. While hotels averaged slightly over 200,000 CFU/sq. in., Airbnbs averaged almost 1.4 million CFUs of bacteria per surface tested. And if you think the ratings or reviews of an Airbnb might help you avoid a dirty shock, think again. A 5-star Airbnb had the highest concentration of bacteria, averaging 1.3 million CFUs per square inch tested.

However, the bed might not be your biggest concern. While mattresses across all accommodations averaged nearly 24,000 CFU/sq. in., and headboards averaged around 113,000 CFU/sq. in., nightstands were the most contaminated surfaces with close to 1.5 million CFUs per surface tested.

To understand hotel and Airbnb cleanliness better, we also surveyed housekeeping staff. It turns out that hotel and Airbnb workers were not fully confident their accommodations are cleaned adequately. Among 252 hotel and Airbnb employees, 40% of housekeepers believed guest rooms are not cleaned satisfactorily.

More than 1 in 4 housekeepers admitted bedspreads aren’t always washed between guest stays, and 1 in 5 said the same about the sheets.

Bacteria Contextualized

Trying to grasp what several million CFUs of bacteria really means? We gathered some germ counts from a National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) germ study to compare against our hotel and Airbnb bedroom items.

The nightstands at both the Airbnbs and hotels we tested were the dirtiest items on the list, even dirtier than a school water fountain spigot and a kitchen sink. Even mattresses in Airbnbs, which were by far some of the cleanest items we tested, were still twice as dirty as a household toilet seat.

It’s important to note that not all bacteria are as bad as their names suggest. We analyzed the bacteria composition of each tested item. Here are some things you should know:

  • All of the headboards tested positive for strains of bacteria harmful to humans, including gram-negative rods and gram-positive cocci. Gram negative bacteria are one of the most troubling types of bacteria as they can cause pneumonia and even meningitis, and are resistant to multiple drugs.
  • All but one nightstand contained bacteria harmful to humans, including gram-negative rods and gram-positive cocci.

All mattress bacteria contained gram positive bacteria, which can be harmful to humans, but some also contained bacillus, which aren’t always harmful to humans and can be controlled by good hygiene.

An Abundance of Bacteria

In order to get a closer look at the mattresses we sleep on while we are guests at hotels and Airbnbs, we stripped each mattress in each room and took out our black light in order to find substances that were not visible to the eye in daylight. Take a look at our findings below.

While the space may have been dimly lit and dusty, our testing team on the ground reported that the 1-star hotel had two mattress covers and a hypoallergenic casing on their mattress. Even in the Airbnb, a few mattress pads on an old mattress seemed to help fend off germs; although, at 100 CFU/sq. in., this bed was just slightly cleaner than a toilet seat. The most concerning find was what appeared to be a cryptic handprint on the headboard, which tested positive for 140,000 CFUs of bacteria, primarily gram-positive cocci.

A 3-star hotel room might cost you more money, but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be better off. In fact, of all the rooms we swabbed and analyzed, the bed in the 3-star hotel came back with 65,000 CFU/sq. in., the dirtiest mattress of them all. Here’s what the testing team had to say about the 3-star hotel: “This hotel room had all the signs of a modest economy chain hotel, but as soon as we entered and saw the stains on the carpet, we started to feel very doubtful of the hygiene of the mattress. There were visible stains and a cigarette burn on the mattress.” In contrast, while we found a few stains in the three-star Airbnb mattress, we found no bacteria present on the mattress surface.

Surprisingly, the 4-star hotel had visible signs of bodily fluids on the sheets, and our swab results found 5,200 CFUs of bacteria on the surface of the mattress. Our team on the ground reported: “The mattress was a highly plush latex mattress and very luxurious, but we could see stains on the surface. We are not sure the hotel staff changed the sheets because they did not smell clean.” As for the 5-star Airbnb, though there were visible stains on the mattress, our lab results came back with only 1,000 CFUs of bacteria.

You don’t always need a black light to see that something is amiss in your room. We asked 252 housekeeping staff members to weigh in on what they’ve found on mattresses during their inspections.

If you encounter a weird stain in or around the bed of your Airbnb or hotel room, it could be bodily fluids. Upon inspection, the housekeeping staff said they found vomit (45%), sweat stains (42%), cigarette or smoking burns (42%), and urine (41%).  When we asked our survey respondents about the grossest thing they’ve ever found in a guest’s bed, vomit made the top of the list. But there were also a few peculiar substances that made the list as well: “A big ball of earwax,” “a partially eaten pizza,” “human feces,” “tampons,” and “underwear” were commonly mentioned.

A Better Sleeping Standard

When you book a hotel or Airbnb, what you see isn’t always what you get, and even the star rating of your accommodation may not paint the entire picture. One-star lodging options may have looked the dirtiest on the surface, but our lab tests showed their mattresses and bed areas were some of the cleanest.

At Tuck, we don’t believe in second-guessing where you put your head at night. Our commitment to sleep research means we understand sleep hygiene and the importance of having the right products, so you wake up feeling rested. From our sleep guides to unbiased mattress reviews and expert pillow recommendations, we’ll help you find the perfect night’s rest. Visit us at Tuck.com to learn more.

Methodology and Limitations

We explored the cleanliness of beds in hotels and Airbnbs by swabbing mattresses, headboards, and nightstands at three hotels and three Airbnbs ranging from 1 to 5 stars. Then, we examined bare mattresses using a black light to examine mattress hygiene. We sent our swabs to a lab, and they were analyzed for bacteria CFUs and types.

For the initial analysis, we averaged CFUs to explore overall bacteria counts by type of stay, star rating, and item. All swabs were conducted in 1 square inch areas of each object’s surface to provide a control for our study. We removed one outlier from the data to reduce skewing in our averages. We used a black light to analyze each mattress closely and photographed them.

We also surveyed 252 current and former employees who had worked as housekeeping staff and/or cleaning crews for hotels and Airbnbs to get their insight into cleaning protocols regarding beds to supplement our findings.

Survey data have limitations due to self-reporting, including exaggeration, telescoping, and selective memory. We did not statistically test our hypotheses, as this was a purely exploratory look at bed cleanliness in hotels and Airbnbs.

Fair Use Statement

There’s nothing sinister under our sheets, but your readers might be worried about what’s waiting for them on their next vacation. Share the findings of our analysis for any noncommercial use by including a link to this page in your story so that your readers can see the full scope of our report.

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