We’ve all been there: You're nowhere near home, and suddenly you have to go. And the first bathroom you find—a port-a-potty, a coffee shop, a gas station—smells terrible, has a sticky floor, and must be harboring millions of germs with unpronounceable names.
But when you use a dirty bathroom, just how badly are you risking your health? Here, Shilpi Agarwal, MD, a board-certified family physician in Washington, DC, breaks down what you need to know about disgusting restrooms.
Toilet seats aren’t so bad.
Many women are concerned about getting infections and STIs from the toilet seat, but in reality this is extremely (repeat: extremely) unlikely. You would need to have an open cut or sore near the genital area, sit in the exact spot where the existing bacterium or virus is present, and they would need to be some sort of super bugs that can live outside the body, says Dr. Agarwal. You'll be totally fine if you wipe down the toilet seat. And if you're feeling extra cautious, go ahead and use a paper seat cover, but the truth is that you really don't need it.
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Hovering isn’t ideal.
When you squat or hover over the toilet, you aren’t able to relax your pelvic floor muscles completely, which can make emptying your bladder take longer and make it more difficult for you to fully go. That's no good if you have to make one last pee stop at a port-a-potty before racing a 5K—and then have to run the course on a half-emptied bladder. “Still, hovering is better than holding it all in,” adds Dr. Agarwal.
Handles are horrible.
The most common places for germs like E. coli or fecal bacteria to accumulate are the bathroom door handle, and the small unlock/lock part of the bathroom stall, says Dr. Agarwal. But the good news is that washing your hands with soap and water before you head out will nix those germs. Disgusting but true, not everyone washes up, so use a paper towel to open the door when you leave.
Paper towels are preferred for drying.
They work faster than air driers (who really waits around until every last bit of moisture is gone?), so you're less likely to leave with half-wet hands. And that’s important as you’re more likely to spread bacteria with wet hands than dry hands. Then there’s the concern of what those blowers are actually bowing. “Hand dryers have been shown to spread bacteria up to six feet away from the source itself,” says Dr. Agarwal. Always use paper towels if you have the option, making sure to thoroughly dry both hands. But if you're stuck with only a dryer, use it. Leaving the bathroom with wet hands or wiping them on your pants is the worst method.
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Purse hooks are important.
They're there for a reason. One test revealed about 2 million bacteria per square inch on the bathroom floor, which is around 200 times higher than a sanitary surface. Throw your purse on the ground and you'll end up bringing a lot of those little guys with you.