a female barista with a coffee in a carry out cup

Do you pay attention when you visit your local coffee shop? Can you observe the person who fills your mug or places the lid on your paper cup? Does that person wear disposable gloves? We are constantly surprised to observe someone take your money at the cash register, turn around and grab a paper cup by sticking their fingers inside and on the lip of the cup and then fill it with coffee and push the plastic lid down with the same hand that grabs your cash. Are you at all concerned about germs on your coffee cup lid by such behavior?

The War Over Germs:

Americans are passionate about germs. As with so many other topics these days, there appear to be two polarized camps. Germophobes hate shaking hands. They use hand sanitizer all day long and scrub their kitchen counters with disinfectant. When they go out, they try to avoid touching doorknobs and elevator buttons.

On the other side, you have the unconcerned. They don’t worry about germs. Shaking hands or hugging is welcome. They wash their hands infrequently and rarely disinfect anything.

Germs On Your Coffee Cup Lid?

Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than in your neighborhood coffee shop. The debate centers around germs on your coffee cup lid.

Does the barista who takes your money use the same hand to put the plastic lid on your paper coffee cup? If so, does it bother you? Readers of this column are divided.

Readers Weigh In:

One reader opined:

“I understand the ‘barista and the lid’ anxiety, but it’s based on psychology and appearances, not science or medicine. If you SEE it, it becomes a worry, like the roach on the wall of a restaurant. Disgusting, and you may walk out. But if you never saw it, no big deal. Keep your neuroses to yourself!”

There are plenty of readers who agree, as this one did:

“And so? Do not: breathe, touch anything, eat, and so on and so on. The concern here seems ridiculous. Anything we do in life has risk. So why are coffee lids different from any other object?”

Dirty Money?

Well, one thing that makes coffee cup lids different is the money you’ve just exchanged for your latte.

As one reader noted:

“Where did the barista get the money that he/she is handling? From you! Do you wash your hands every time before paying for something?”

Another one remarked:

“I don’t handle my own foods and beverages with dirty hands, and I don’t want strangers doing it either. I would rather be safe than sick because someone else is too lazy to wash their dirty hands.

“Money is covered with disease-causing pathogens and toxic chemicals because many people have handled it. It is common sense to use caution and not take a risk of becoming ill.”

The Barista Perspective:

There is another perspective to be considered: the one from behind the counter.

One reader commented:

“I’m a barista. I take your order, make your drink, answer the phone, wash the dishes, answer your questions, explain why your order is not ready when there is one barista and twelve customers at once–and get your cup for drip coffee, too. I will get that cup and lid right after taking your money, but what you don’t see is that I wash my hands about thirty times in an eight-hour day, not including doing dishes by hand and getting them out of the bleach rinse (50-100 ppm, tested, every time I make it.) If you get sick because my hands touched your lid I will have a difficult time believing it.”

Flu Season Is Here!

Despite such reassurances, this is the flu season. Viral particles are easily transmitted from hand to coffee lid. Microbiologist Charles Gerba has tested coffee cup lids and found all sorts of bacterial and viral contamination:

“It’s basically catch a cold with your caffeine in the morning. I don’t think most people expect it.”

Here is a link to the full story in The Daily Wildcat. The bottom line of Dr. Gerba’s study:

“Gerba said E. coli was just one of the indicators in his study. He also saw other bacteria present, like the Norovirus, which causes adult diarrhea. Bacteria like these can cause people who handle and who drink from these coffee lids to get not only diarrhea, but anything from a common cold to the flu, said Gerba.”

Norovirus? What’s That?

You do not want to know norovirus! Here is what the CDC has to say about norovirus:

“Norovirus is a very contagious virus that can infect anyone. You can get it from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus causes your stomach or intestines or both to get inflamed. This leads you to have stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea and to throw up. These symptoms can be serious for some people, especially young children and older adults…”

We think that is an understatement. When they say very contagious, they are not kidding. Just a tiny amount of this virus can lead to sudden onset, intense vomiting and diarrhea. Abdominal pain is often part of the mix. And the vomiting and diarrhea are intense! This virus often attacks cruise ships and sends them home to port. But it also affects landlubbers even more frequently. Enough said.

If someone transmits the tiniest amount of the virus on money and it is transferred to your coffee cup lid, you are likely to suffer some very unpleasant consequences.

What Is the Answer to Germs On Your Coffee Cup Lid?

What is the solution? Well, some readers prefer to make their own coffee at home. That works when you are there, but sometimes you want a cup when you’re out. If you take your thermos with you, you can hang onto the lid yourself while the barista fills the thermos with coffee. Then any germs you’ll encounter will be your own.

What’s Your Opinion?

Which side are you on in this debate?

No worries mate! The more germs the merrier.


Be careful to observe how the barista handles your coffee cup lid. If you see something you don’t like, speak up! Ask for a new cup or a clean lid.

Share your own story or weigh in with your opinion in the comment section below.

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  1. SherriD

    I have observed over and over that the server will hand you a glass (of whatever liquid you ordered) by holding it near the top or by the top where your mouth will go! Or handing you an unwrapped straw! Servers take notice that this is not ok!

  2. Kate

    Call me crazy (I know my kids do!) —I feel there’s a compromise of sorts. I believe if we have everything in our lives sterile we’re not allowing our immune systems to work. Of course there are exceptions: I do believe people in environments where they have a heavy interaction with the public-*should/need* to wear gloves.
    I liked the suggestion that if someone is very concerned in the coffee shop setting, to bring your own thermos. Or tell barista to show you where the lids are so yours are the only hands on it!

  3. Nidia

    We are all talking about the coffee lids, what about the cashiers at supermarkets that have to constantly asked the customers if they have a loyalty card. And where is the card attached, to their car keys. How often can the cashier get off their register to go wash their hands? How many sets of keys they handle a day? Then they touch your fresh vegetables can you picture all those germ. When they go on their short break they run to get something quick to eat that they forget to wash their hand. Think abou this

  4. K

    Please don’t touch the top of my coffee cup lid with the hands you used to take my money. I don’t need to get sick and if you are being that casual about my food, I’ll take my business elsewhere. Here in Georgia, doing that will also lose your business points on the periodic health inspections which are then posted where customers can easily view them. I try to not eat or drink at places with scores below a B, and acknowledge the work that it takes to get an A. (Which all 4 of my local coffee places have, by the way.)

    I take a middle ground about germs. I’m not phobic about them, but not casual either. I wash my hands before I fix or eat food and when I get to work. (I ride the bus.) During the winter and when co-workers are sick I wipe down our shared workstations with wipes, and carry hand sanitizer. I also occasionally wipe off my cell phone and case and devices. Yes, there were germs around when I was a kid (about 40 years ago) but people traveled less and so the nasties were a bit more contained. We also just put up with them because we had less choice.

  5. Cindy B
    Seattle, WA

    I’ve said it many times but it bears repeating. l am DEFINITELY in the WHO-CARES camp. Not only have I never paid one bit of attention to germs of any kind, most things I do are quite germ-laden. Like petting and kissing animals, retrieving cups out of public trash cans if I need one, and drinking out of them; like eating dirt, like NEVER washing my hands… I also drink out of every stream in the mts. I never get a flu shot; yet I don’t even get colds. If one eats all the right foods, takes all the right supplements and gets lots of exercise, I think that’s all it takes! IMHO, this germ-phobia thing bites people in the rear and makes them get sick more readily. (BTW, I’m now 70!) Cheers.

  6. Nancy

    I’ m with Ronnie. I always use a straw.

  7. Tommie S

    I worked a while part time at a concession company and you could not fake money and where gloves. If you wanted to you could take mobey and then put gloves on but that was impeacticle as you had to change hloves after each customer do we did not wear hloves at cash register even if also handing out food unless doing one or the other exclusively

  8. Peggi H

    Hmm… I’m somewhat of a germaphobe, but I’ve not noticed that so much in coffee shops, and in many coffee places you put on your own lid — I always take the second or third one down! However, I have cringed when the sandwich maker answers the phone or takes money and then turns to make my order. Do they think their gloves don’t pick up germs? (I even watched a pizza maker scratch his head with his gloves and then add the cheese. Gross!) Overall, I am definitely more vigilant during flu season and when throw-up viruses make the rounds.

  9. laurie
    Cottonwood, AZ

    For those concerned about germs. The only answer is, stay home.
    But for those of us who choose to face the world, do all you can to keep your immune system strong and carry hand wipes. Enjoy life.

  10. Linda
    Madison, WI

    I remember seeing a report on one of the morning shows about germs on things. One of the items they tested was the handrails on an escalator in a Mall, they found fecal matter, urine and even semen (YIKES) on it. Everything we touch, that someone else has touched before us is probably contaminated with some unspeakable substance i/e/germ. Wash your hands or be the adult in the bubble.

  11. Pam
    Shoreline WA

    If you bring your own reusable cup, the barista generally asks you to hold on to the lid. Problem solved. No added germs on the lid and less waste added to our landfills.
    And many places have separate individuals handling the money.

    • Elena
      Edmonds, Wa.

      I’m with Pam, take your own cup for all those reasons!

  12. Virginia
    Asheboro, NC

    When I was growing up it was the 10 second rule. Granted, a lot has changed and I don’t trust the ground today as well as I did then. But I also joined the Army and not only did I regain my appreciation for the ground I also gained my appreciation for observation skills and discernment. I’m careful but not obsessive. I reuse paper towels from restrooms to open doors and I wear sleeves for those places who choose energy efficiency over clean door handles. My belief is that there is only so much I can do to prevent getting sick. Do I need to mention people who go to work sick or getting over an illness. The surface of anything is the last thing I worry about. I like to breathe.

  13. Mary Jane

    Here in New York City, I see people walking around regularly with a cup of coffee in hand. Apparently, most people need to consume constantly, in one form or another. Part of the coffee-lid dilemma would be resolved if people would cease drinking coffee (or tea, or soda) in every waking moment.

    • Flo

      Geez. Even Peoples Pharmacy has to give in to the germ phobia in America. Give your immune system a workout & it will take better care of you. Eat Dirt!

  14. Bill
    Katy, tx

    I’ve seen several studies showing the prevalence of germs on certain objects. What are the odds that these germs will get to you and make you sick. I’d like t see a study on that.

  15. Rose

    On a similar topic, I have often observed on planes that the flight attendant hands me my drink with his/her palm above the top of the glass with all five fingers directly on rim where I will sip my drink. I will no longer drink anything served in this manner. Now I purchase a large bottle of water in the airport before boarding and drink only from that bottle. I wonder why airlines do not train their flight attendants that their fingers should never touch the rim of a drinking glass

  16. Noreen

    I have stopped going to places where I don’t do my own coffee and make it at home. Cheaper and better. Problem solved.

    • Bob
      Washington (the state)

      They are trained to do it that way because if there is any turbulence the cup is better controlled with their hand above the rim rather than on the lower part ofthe cup/glass – the better not to splash it on your or your seatmate!

  17. trisha
    Asheville, NC

    “Ask for a new cup or a clean lid.” Aside from the germ issue, worries of which I think are excessive and suggest incredible self-absorption in the face of so many serious issues today, we should be asking why everyone isn’t bringing their own cup/travel mug to the coffee shops. The excessive waste- now that’s a real and legitimate worry. And many of those cups, and certainly lids, are not recyclable.

  18. Bobby

    Some disgusting things I don’t do…drink a cup of anything with the lid on, drink through a straw in one of those plastic drink bottles, drink from a reusable drink container that was most likely made in China. And I don’t care how many times the barista washes her hands, she will come in contact with filth on every thing she touches to make your drink. Let’s face it, don’t worry, be happy. Most bacteria and germs are not going to make you sick, or else you’d be sick 24/7/365. Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

  19. Carlie
    Lexington, SC

    I have greater concern about the lids to self serve beverages in fast food restaurants. First, we must touch the screen multiple times to choose our drinks, then press the omni button to fill, THEN take lids to put onto our cups. I try very hard to touch only the lid I am going to use, or at least to pull lids apart by the very edges and to use the one I touched most. I frankly doubt most other customers are as careful. I wonder how often viruses, bacteria and fungi are passed by people who handle cup lids to be used by others — US!

  20. Gail Wiesner
    Raleigh, NC

    Many people keep a coffee mug or travel mug in their car at all times. Take your cup in, take off the lid yourself and then hand it to the barista. Many places will have a small discount program so you may save money and protect your health if you use your own cup. You ay also ask that they put no lid on your paper cup. There is no reason they should touch the rim, but ask that they do not do so.
    Having had the Norovirus once, I agree with the germophobes.

  21. Christina

    You could have horrific germs on your hands, but if you do not touch anything on your person, or have an open cut, there’s no real harm. I wash my hands several times a day, but not a lot. I do not ever, never, touch myself in any way, use my jacket to open doors, etc. After work I wash hands and scrub nails with a brush. If everyone just stopped breathing, we wouldn’t get sick. (We’d all be dead.)

  22. Carey

    I’ve heard that money is treated to prevent (or at least reduce) germs from sticking to it.

    My concern is now that everyone reuses their cups/bottles, then at work we all share one water cooler (or coffee maker). I’ve gone back to paper cups. At least that way I’m not contributing to the problem.

  23. Tom M

    This is getting ridiculous. Germs are everywhere and your best defense is a healthier immune system. That means for many people altering their diets somewhat and living a healthier life style. Just a few changes can help you fight the invasion of germs into your system, which by the way is filled with billions of bacteria and other so-called nasties.

  24. Bette
    Chevy Chase MD

    I always remove the lid of my takeout coffee before drinking — because I don’t like the plastic taste or smell. Now, I have another reason to do so, LOL! And you’re absolutely right, I see baristas touching any number of things (money, store displays, customer’s phones, gift cards, the public counter area) and then making my drink — it is definitely not hygienic. It would never be acceptable in a lab or factory environment, or even a restaurant — so I think this is a valid concern.

  25. Ronnie

    Even though I pour my coffee into a another cup, prior to the chain advertising these cups as an incentive to get ten cents back if you use them, I ALWAYS drank my coffee through a WRAPPED STRAW! Not because of germs, but I was sick and tired of spilling HOT coffee onto myself as a drove (and staining my clothes!). Plus by using a straw driving, you can literally see where you are going. Now the added plus by using a wrapped straw is the cut down on germs. Problem solved?

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