Propose that question at your next dinner party or group meeting and watch people become uncomfortable or infuriated.
The answer is far from conclusive. Consider these statistics:
- After going to the bathroom, 93 percent of women wash their hands. Only 77 percent of men do.
- Researchers looked at 90 American offices and found men had more bacteria on office equipment (such as computers) — 10 percent, in fact — compared with women.
- One study found women’s bathrooms were dirtier than men’s. Researchers attributed that to more children and heavier traffic in female bathrooms.
Let’s back up and look at that last one. A review of 47 public restrooms found male restrooms were 1.5 times “cleaner” overall than female restrooms, which were more contaminated with E. coli.
E. coli is a bacterium commonly found in the intestines of humans and other animals. Some strains are harmless, while others can create pneumonia and urinary tract infections.
Among their statistics, researchers found E. coli was 4.5 times more prevalent in the sink of women’s restrooms. “Female restrooms were significantly more contaminated than male restrooms,” researchers concluded.
But men aren’t totally off the hook: Floors in male restrooms are more often contaminated with E. coli than those in female restrooms.
Besides, the answer becomes more complicated when you consider the bacterial species on women’s toilets seats weren’t present on those for men because women sit down more to use the bathroom.
Regardless of gender, one thing remains certain: Restrooms are hotspots of bacterial contamination.
One study found public restrooms harbor skin and gut bacteria — thousands of them, in fact — that are easily transmittable by touch: When you flush the toilet, say, or turn on the faucet to wash your hands.
Bathroom Germs Breed in Bathrooms
“Germs” encompasses a wide range of microscopic organisms — far too tiny for the human eye — that can cause disease.
Among their damage, germs can produce toxins that create symptoms of common infections including fever, vomiting, and diarrhea.
That said, not all bacteria are bad. Your gut houses about 100 trillion good bacteria that (among other roles) support your immune system, help digest food, produce several vitamins, and inhibit the growth of bad bacteria.
But the germs we’re talking about here are not your friends. They contribute to various diseases and symptoms including the flu (viruses), diarrhea (protozoa), and athlete’s foot (fungi).
Germs thrive wherever they can find warmth, food, and moisture. That might be on food, on the ground, in the air, rodents, and unclean water. Even sharing a towel or clothing can transmit germs.
And a primary place where germs love to hang out is in the bathroom, especially public restrooms.
In one sense, the invention of toilets (and restrooms) traded one set of problems for another. Until indoor, flushing toilets came about in the 1850s, things were… much less than sanitary. Toilets made life more pleasant, but they also prevented waste species from transferring from person to person. Toilets literally saved millions of lives. So did sinks: They made removing germs from our hands much easier.
But restrooms also created a breeding ground for germs, especially among public restrooms that see a lot of foot traffic.
In a Scientific American article, Rob Dunn notes that beginning in the 1960s, an entire field of science aimed to understand the story of bathroom bacteria. Among what that research revealed:
- When you flush the toilet with the lid up, bacteria can go up to six feet through the air (and yes, land on your toothbrush).
- Bacteria are present all over the bathroom (though they differ between wet versus dry places).
- Toilet bowls don’t have that many bacteria.
Today, you expect restrooms to be clean, functional, and operational. As anyone who has used a gas station or department store bathroom knows, that’s not always the case. One study found traces of 77,990 bacteria and viruses in public restrooms.
Researchers also found within one hour of cleaning and disinfecting, bathrooms became contaminated again with microbes and fecal bacteria. Public restrooms harbor so many germs, in fact, that cleaning may not be possible to remove all contaminants.
The worst of the worst? Airplane bathrooms. One researcher found E. coli traces almost 100 percent of the time on door handles, and airline bathrooms are rarely disinfected between flights. What’s even more germ-ridden on airplanes? Tray tables!
The most contaminated surface in public restrooms might not be what you imagine: Sinks. Interestingly, the toilet seat and toilet fell below the toilet paper dispenser, side walls, and trash can among surfaces harboring bacteria.
Do Bathroom Germs Cause Humans Harm?
These germs — on the sink, toilet, or anywhere in public bathrooms — get into your body through your mouth, nose, skin, eyes, and genitals.
While they can move around (say, from one part of your body to another), they need something to move them around. That could be your hands, blood, water, or dust.
Once those disease-causing germs get inside your body, they breed very quickly (a small number can quickly become millions) and create havoc.
Germs that feces carries (including salmonella and E. coli), for instance, can spread respiratory infections. A single gram of human feces (about the weight of a paper clip) can contain a staggering one trillion germs.
While thousands of different types of germs exist, only some of these create sickness. Consider, for instance, colds and the flu, triggered by virus germs that infect your respiratory system.
And how do these cold- and flu-triggering germs infect us? According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), your hands spread about 80 percent of infections. Say, when someone touches a germ-ridden surface or gets infected by germ particles from sneezing, coughing, or touching.
Most germs can live on nearly any surface for days. You touch that surface when you, say, turn a bathroom door knob. Those germs linger on your hand, you subsequently rub your lip or pick up an apple, and bam. The next morning, you’re sneezing and feel achy.
Bacteria Linger Everywhere, Not Just Public Bathrooms
Another top contender for germ breeding grounds? Don’t lose your lunch: Restaurants.
Employers require employees to wash their hands thoroughly after using the restroom. Not doing so can taint your food with fecal matter, introducing infectious bacteria or viruses to your meal.
If you order raw food, you also risk being exposed to a wide range of bacteria. Even well-done doesn’t always cut it: A kitchen worker who handles raw foods can transfer bacteria to your plate.
Other top germ offenders include your office, airplanes, hotels, and movie theaters. You might not consider some of these culprits, including ATM machines or elevators. Even your home isn’t immune to germs, especially bathrooms and your kitchen.
Keeping Your Home Germ-free, Naturally
You can’t control public spaces such as restrooms, but you can do plenty to keep your home environment germ-free.
For one, disinfect surfaces often. (To disinfect means using soap or another cleaner to eliminate germs that can cause infection.) That includes kitchen counters (before and after making food) and bathroom surfaces. Try this Naturally Safe All Purpose Cleaner made of vinegar, lavender, and natural oils.
And practice good food hygiene. Use separate cutting boards and utensils for produce and raw animal foods. Keep countertops clean and wash utensils and cutting boards in hot, soapy water. Keep your pet’s food away from human food.
What if you drop a food? An urban legend goes if you use it within five seconds, you’re safe to eat it.
A study at Clemson University tested this theory and concluded that dropping food and subsequently eating it may not make you sick. But it could, and there are over 46 million cases of American foodborne illnesses year. If a food lands on a microorganism on the floor, you’re probably about to put that microbe in your mouth.
Germs linger everywhere, but becoming aware of the most prevalent areas can help you minimize their impact on your health and wellbeing.
5 Ways to Minimize the Impact of Germs
Public restrooms harbor numerous germs including streptococcus, staphylococcus, E. coli and shigella bacteria, hepatitis A virus, the common cold virus, and various sexually transmitted organisms.
But anxiety or paranoia aren’t the answers. Instead, keeping your immune system healthy and focusing on good hygiene can minimize those germs’ impact.
The short answer to removing germs? Regular cleaning (soap and clean water) and disinfecting. And wash your hands regularly.
You needn’t become overly compulsive about this, but be mindful about high-germ environments (including public restrooms) and prepare accordingly with these five strategies.
- Support your immune system. When your immune system works optimally, you’re less likely to be infected with bacteria, viruses, and whatever else lingers in public bathrooms or anywhere. A strong immune system requires:
- A nutrient-dense diet including plenty of colorful plant foods, protein, and healthy fats. Our Core or Advanced Plans make the ideal way to get those nutrients.
- Immune-supporting supplements including Daily Defense. Talk with your healthcare practitioner about other nutrients to support a strong immune system.
- The right lifestyle strategies including optimal sleep, managing stress, the right exercise, and visiting your chiropractor regularly.
You’ll find more strategies to optimize your immune system in this article.
- Wash your hands regularly. Among its benefits, handwashing can prevent about 30 percent of diarrhea-related sickness and about 20 percent of respiratory infections such as colds. If you wash your hands for the proper amount of time — 15 – 20 seconds – you’re unlikely to get sick from germ-ridden places like public restrooms. If counting isn’t your thing, sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself twice while washing your hands. (Consider doing this silently in public!) Worth repeating: Wash your hands correctly and do it often.
- Ensure public restrooms have been cleaned often. That includes your office restroom, where you shop, and where you dine out. Be outspoken about maintaining cleanliness. Many public restrooms now have signed charts that ensure they get cleaned every hour or so. If you learn a public bathroom only gets cleaned less often, consider speaking with a store manager and (if possible) find another restroom.
- Use touchless features whenever possible. Those include touchless faucets, soap dispensers, and hand dryers as well as self-flushing toilets. Some restrooms even allow you to open the door with your foot. The fewer surfaces you touch, the more you minimize being exposed to bacteria, viruses, and contaminants.
- Be the example you want others to be. Good hygiene impacts others. You’re less likely to transfer germs, of course, but you also impact how others behave. When your children see you thoroughly wash your hands in the restroom, they’re more likely to follow your example.
Germs are highly contagious. Sharing is caring, but be mindful of anything contaminated with germs like towels, lipstick, food, drinks, and utensils. Cough into the crook of your elbow, and use a tissue when you sneeze. If you have a cough or fever, stay home!
While most bacteria are relatively harmless, some aren’t and can create illness or death. You simply want to be aware these bacteria exist and take precautionary measures to reduce their impact.