The Right Way to Use a Public Bathroom (to Avoid Getting Sick)


If you’re grossed out nonetheless, consider cleaning the toilet seat with an alcohol-based wipe before you sit down, suggested Dr. David Jay Weber, an epidemiologist and physician at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. You can also line the seat with toilet paper, but try not to touch the seat in the process — and keep in mind that the paper you line the seat with may also have germs on it, because the last time the toilet was flushed, it probably aerosolized germs from the toilet into the air, which may have settled on the paper you’re using.

What about squatting? Research suggests that most women prefer squatting over a toilet seat to avoid germ and urine exposure. But some doctors worry that this position can make it hard to fully relax the pelvic floor, which could pose risks. Some research suggests, for instance, that women who squat take longer to urinate and don’t release all of their urine, which could increase the risk for urinary tract infections. But in healthy individuals, these risks are most likely small, said Dr. Doreen Chung, a urologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. And it’s far better to squat than to eschew the restroom entirely, she said. “There are patients who hold in their urine who are then unable to relax their pelvic floor musculature to urinate,” she said. But if you do squat, be kind and clean up after yourself if need be. (Ladies, you know what I’m talking about.)

Most public toilets don’t have lids, but if yours does, close the lid before flushing to minimize the number of germs released into the air. Either way, exit the stall as quickly as possible after flushing, Dr. Weber said.

It’s very important to wash your hands after using a public bathroom — they will inevitably get germy because of what you’ve touched. A 2011 study, for instance, found fecal bacteria on public bathroom flush handles as well as skin-related bacteria, including staphylococci and streptococci, on bathroom doors, stall doors, faucet handles and soap dispensers. Yet many people either don’t wash their hands or don’t do it the right way. “There are areas people miss, like the back of the tops of the fingers,” said Dr. Matthew Zahn, chairman of the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s public health committee. Dr. Weber suggested washing for at least 15 seconds with water at a comfortable temperature so that you aren’t inclined to rush.

Think twice, though, before using your just-washed hands to turn off the faucet. “That’s probably the dirtiest place in the bathroom,” said Dr. Judy Stone, a Maryland-based infectious disease physician — after all, everyone turns on the faucet with dirty hands. Instead, consider drying your hands with a paper towel and then using that towel to turn off the faucet. (If it’s an automatic faucet, congratulations: You just won the lottery. If there are no paper towels, use toilet paper or an alcohol wipe if you have one.)

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