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Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Public Toilets
Everyone has their wacky public bathroom habits. Some will do anything possible to avoid touching the bathroom door, others flush with their feet, and still others get an intense workout from all the hovering over toilets they do in the day-to-day. But are these bathroom dramatics really necessary? It depends, says Jason Tetro, a microbiologist, a probiotic company Bio-K+ advisory board member, and author ofThe Germ Code. “This is very timely because a study recently came out that looked at the natural microbial inhabitants of the public washroom," says Tetro. "What they found was despite all our worries that these horrible germs are everywhere, it’s really not the case." At the same time, he admits there are certain surfaces that are packed with bacteria you definitely won’t want to carry around all day. Read on to find out the healthiest way to use a public bathroom.
How Dirty Is the Actual Toilet?
"When you have a flushable toilet, all the bad stuff goes down the train," says Tetro. "Studies have found that if there’s a lid on the toilet, there’s nothing to worry about on the actual toilet in terms of bacteria," ideally because people put the lid down when they flush. But really, how many public bathrooms actually have lids? “If there’s no lid, you get low levels of fecal bacteria on the toilet seat, maybe a couple hundred for every square centimeter,” says Tetro. Then there’s the surrounding area, which he calls “the zone of the stall.” “You can expect between 500 to a few thousand bacteria for every centimeter squared, depending on how often it’s cleaned.” It may sound like a lot, but to make his point, Tetro compares that level to your skin, which has upwards of hundreds of thousands of bacteria per square centimeter. Plus, in one gram of fecal matter, he estimates there are between one to 100 billion bacteria. So by comparison, the amount on the seat is pretty negligible.
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How Can You Be as Clean as Possible in the Stall?
If that's just not all right for you, you can give the seat a quick wipe down with toilet paper or wipes from your purse. “That will give you that little bit of extra protection, but remember what’s going to be touching it: skin," says Tetro. "That’s a good protective barrier, so there’s very little chance you’ll get infected." Then, of course, if you want absolutely no skin-to-skin contact, you can use one of the paper seat covers many bathrooms provide. Try it in combination with this genius tip Tetro provides: Remove the first two layers of toilet paper, and throw them into the toilet before you sit. “When someone flushes a toilet, the contaminated water will become aerosolized and the spray can travel upwards of six feet,” says Tetro. That means those first layers of toilet paper (and the first toilet cover!) have been exposed, so you can get rid of them before you go for some extra cleanliness.
What About Flushing?
“Flushing with your foot is a good move,” says Tetro. “Like I said, those aerosols will travel about six feet, and how far is the handle from the bowl?!" Since it’s right there, you may want to avoid touching it. By all means, use your foot.” Another way to avoid the grossness that flushing can cause is so simple, yet you probably don’t do it: Hold your breath. “You don’t want to breath in any of the spray,” says Tetro. And for those toilets that have autoflush, which should be genius but sometimes malfunctions before you’ve finished your business? Tetro recommends using a disinfectant wipe on yourself after so you feel fresh and clean.
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Washing Your Hands
So many people focus on the toilet when it comes to the dirtiness of public bathrooms, but the sink can actually be the germiest part of the place. “You leave the bathroom stall with all this material in your hands, and the material then goes into the sink," says Tetro. "The sinks are usually just covered in water, so you’ve transferred all of that bacteria into the sink and onto those surfaces." With that comes a greater threat of infection since there’s a greater likelihood of getting sick when your hands come into contact with your face.
Also consider the fact that very few people are actually washing their hands properly. “Around 60 percent of women wash their hands properly, while the number is much lower for men, at around 30 percent at most,” says Tetro. By washing properly, he means wetting your hands with warm water, adding soap, scrubbing for 15 to 20 seconds (enough time to sing “Happy Birthday” twice), rinsing with warm water, then drying.
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Drying Your Hands
Because of the high level of contamination around public bathroom sinks, it makes sense to use a paper towel as a protective layer when shutting off the tap if it’s not one of the automated ones. What if there are no paper towels and there are only hand dryers? That’s fine, as long as you make sure your face isn’t in the path of the airflow. “When you finish washing your hands, especially if you didn’t do it properly, there’s the likelihood you’re going to blow aerosols from your hands into your face.” There are also some hand dryers that catch the water in the bottom and can actually pump that back out into the air. When you have to use a hand dryer, Tetro recommends applying hand sanitizer as soon as you’re out of the restroom.
Leaving the Bathroom
It’s unfortunate, but all this hygienic protocol can be undone as soon as you touch the door to leave. “The door handles and push plates of public bathrooms are incredibly contaminated," says Tetro. "For men, they’re usually contaminated with fecal bacteria. When I study the women’s, they’re usually contaminated with yeast.” Yes, yeast. Tetro recommends switching to another piece of paper towel (you want to improve the microbial quality, not further contaminate the handle by using the same one from the tap), when you’re ready to leave.
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The reason public bathroom hygiene is so essential is because they’ve got some nasty bacteria that can damage your health. Things like E. coli and salmonella abound, along with lesser-known but still potentially dangerous bacteria like campylobacter, klebsiella, and C. diff. Hygiene is the first step in avoiding anything that can make you ill, but there are other options, too.
Beyond keeping up with getting all your daily vitamins and nutrients, research has shown probiotics can actually have a beneficial effect on your response to pathogens, says Tetro. "It helps to have antimicrobials in your gut that aren’t antibiotics or drugs, and the only way to do that is by ingesting probiotics." He calls out three in particular: Lactobacillus Acidophilus, which produces antimicrobial peptides that kill off pathogens, Lactobacillus Rhamnosus, which science suggests creates a natural barrier system in your gut, and Lactobacillus Casei, which helps your immune system fend off bad bacteria. While you should always chat with your doctor before introducing something new into your diet, Tetro says the therapeutic effect occurs when you take 10 billion CFUs (colony-forming units) per day (sounds like a lot, but that amount often comes in one pill).
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