Box Office Bacteria!

Box Office Bacteria!

September 1, 2018

In 2017, the theatre industry sold 1.24 billion movie tickets. From blockbuster hits in the form of comic book adaptations to critically acclaimed award-winning films – that’s a lot of tickets.

So imagine you’re on your way into the movies. You pull up to the theater and head to the box office. Maybe you use an automated ticket machine, or maybe the attendant takes your card and passes back your tickets. Next, it’s time for concessions. Maybe you grab a bag of candy off the rack or head up to the counter for a big bag of popcorn and a drink. By the time you’ve actually made it into your respective theater, found your seats, and settled in for the film, there’s one major occurrence you probably haven’t considered: the germs.

Before you decide to show up for the next feature film, you might want to know just how many germs stand between you, your oversized bucket of popcorn, and the end credits. We’re here to help with that. To learn more, we swabbed some of the most popular surfaces at movie theaters to find out how many grimy germs are crawling across theater armrests, butter dispensers, and touch-screen ticket kiosks. Read on as we break down the good, the bad, and the ugly of movie theater bacteria.

Examining Surfaces at the Movies

You probably don’t need to be told you’re not the only person who’s ever been to your movie theater. The seats you sit in, the armrests you relax on, and even the soda dispenser and butter machines, have all been frequented by thousands of people before you.

So what does that mean in terms of germs and bacteria? Quite a bit, actually. According to our test swabs, the theater seating armrest might be the cleanest section of your movie theater, averaging 59,206 colony-forming units (CFU) of bacteria per square inch. To help put that into perspective, the average pet toy typically only has 18,900 CFU of bacteria per square inch. That means your theater armrest has three times more bacteria than the toys your dog plays with.

Unfortunately, that isn’t where the clusters of bacteria end. Getting butter for your popcorn might help make it more delicious, but you could pick up a few nasty germs in the process. Based on our swabs, the average butter dispenser button had more than 441,000 CFU of bacteria per square inch – over 21 times the amount of bacteria in your kitchen sink.

More than 1 in 3 moviegoers postulated the exterior lobby door handle was the germiest section of the theater, but they were wrong. Touch-screen ticket dispensers had more than 10 million CFU per square inch, making them both the most germ-ridden section of your average movie theater and five times as rife with bacteria as the average toothbrush holder.

Breaking Down the Germs

Before you swear off going to the movies completely, it’s important to recognize that not all bacteria are necessarily bad. While it’s true that some of the germs you might find at the cinema could be the kind linked to pneumonia or meningitis, others can actually provide positive enrichment for the body.

Of the four main surfaces we swabbed and analyzed at local movie theaters, we found four main types of microbes. Overwhelmingly, the main type of bacteria discovered on armrests, butter dispensers, and exterior lobby doors were gram-positive cocci. Despite the potentially confusing nomenclature, the term “positive” here doesn’t denote one of the “good” bacteria types. Gram-positive cocci are often linked with serious skin infections, high fevers, and sepsis.

While touch-screen ticket dispensers ranked as the most germ-ridden surfaces in movie theaters on average, we found most of the microbes on these automated machines were gram-positive rods. Unlike gram-positive cocci, gram-positive rods are typically harmless to humans.

Being Mindful at the Movies

Millions of Americans go to the movies every year. Whether you only go for special blockbuster releases or like to make a habit of keeping up with what’s trending, the reality is you probably have more to think about than the cost of tickets or the calories in your popcorn.

Considering how many people pass through each theater on a regular basis, it’s no surprise that we found germs on popular surfaces like armrests or butter dispensers. What is surprising is how much dirtier those surfaces were than a kitchen sick or pet food bowls, and how potentially dangerous those microbes can be. If you’re enjoying a night out at the movies, you might want to be more cognizant of the surfaces you’re touching (especially if you’re using those same hands to eat), and consider washing your hands before enjoying any of that delicious popcorn.

The movies aren’t the only place you should mindful of your safety at. Our mission at Bay Alarm Medical is to protect your family, health, and independence. With our industry-leading medical life alert technology and America’s most reliable 24-hour medical emergency call centers, you never have to worry if your loved ones are safe when you’re away. Visit us online to learn more about our in-home medical alert systems and mobile GPS help button at today.


We conducted 20 total gram and stain culture swab tests across four different surfaces (each surface was swabbed five times) across five movie theaters. Colony-forming units per swab were averaged for each surface type. Surfaces were chosen based on items we determined were most touched by moviegoers. It is possible that with a larger sample size of surfaces, we could have gained more insight into CFU levels. We also conducted a survey of 527 moviegoers.

No statistical testing was performed, and claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory.


Fair Use Statement

Lights, camera, microbes! Think you know a movie buff who’d be interested in the results of our study? Feel free to share this report with your readers for any noncommercial use. We only ask that you include a link back to this page so our contributors earn credit for their work too.

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