Like many people, I have a love/hate relationship with public restrooms. Yes, they’re necessary — for the obvious reasons — but oh how I hate to use them. I just know they’re teeming with germs. If you’re like me, you probably think putting a layer of toilet paper on the toilet seat will help protect you from some of them. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case.
In fact, you might be exposing yourself to more germs by adding a layer of paper to the seat than you would if you just sat your rear down on the seat with nothing between it and your skin. If that creeps you out, here’s what you really need to worry about in the restroom, and how to protect yourself.
Germs on the toilet seat
The toilets in public restrooms are designed specifically to keep germs from hanging out on them. Non-porous plastic seats are among the least germy surfaces in a public restroom. A study by BioCote, a company that produces antimicrobial materials using a silver-based antibacterial agent, found that bacteria hang out in unexpected places in public restrooms.
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The team found only 150 Colony Forming Units (CFU) of bacteria on the seat. There were 220 CFUs on the toilet paper dispenser and a whopping 50,000 CFUs in the sink. Germs can’t multiply on bare, unbroken skin. So, if the back of your thigh brushes up against the toilet seat, the likelihood of catching anything is extremely low.
Germs on toilet paper
Think about toilet paper for a moment: it’s designed to be absorbent. When someone flushes the toilet, there’s a trace amount of waste matter that gets put out into the air through toilet spray, known as toilet plume. That waste matter and all its germs fall back toward the ground, and some of it hits the toilet paper roll on the way back. By lining the seat with toilet paper, you might be sitting on the very germs you’re trying to avoid.
Since the 1970s, Dr. Charles Gerba (a.k.a. Dr. Germ) at the University of Arizona has been studying how germs spread. His 1975 study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found that toilet paper dispensers had 150 times more bacteria than toilet seats did. When a toilet flushes, “it looks like the Fourth of July with rockets going off from inside the toilet,” says Dr. Germ.
Now that I’ve freaked you out and you think you’ll never go into another public restroom, don’t let this information deter you. There are ways to use the restroom in public without exposing yourself to scores of illnesses or infection.