Using a public bathroom never feels like the cleanest endeavor. To make it feel a little more bearable, you may be in the habit of lining the seat with toilet paper, or one of those handy pre-shaped covers. Or maybe you get super psyched about those toilets that switch out a new cover with the push of a button (yes, they exist, and they’re awesome).
But is a wimpy sheet of paper really a good enough shield? Do we even need a shield in the first place?
“In fact, the top of a toilet seat is much cleaner than most people’s kitchen sinks,” says Philip Tierno, Ph.D., clinical professor in the departments of microbiology and pathology at NYU Langone Medical Center.
When it comes to STDs like herpes, most are rarely ever found on toilet seats, he assures us, and the bacteria die off pretty quickly anyway—the herpes virus can’t survive outside the body for more than 10 seconds, and neither can chlamydia and gonorrhea. For a blood-borne disease like HIV or Zika virus, as long as you’re not getting someone else’s bodily fluids into an open wound while you’re relieving yourself, you’re good.
If anything, you could get a staph infection, like MRSA. But even that’s unlikely.
“If you have lesions or abrasions, any type of open skin, you can pick up something like a staph infection,” Tierno explains. But again, only if you have cut or something else that the bacteria can enter through. Most bacteria on the seat are just common skin microbes that are probably already crawling all over you too (sorry, but it’s true).
If you follow basic hygiene rules, you’ll be fine.
Rule number one: Don’t touch your nose, eyes, mouth, or any open wound until you wash your hands. That’s how bacteria gets into your body and makes you sick. Rule two: Wash your hands.
“No matter how contaminated your hands are, as long as you wash them properly—for 20 seconds, with soap, and getting under the nail bed—you’re fine,” Tierno says. Just make sure you don’t ruin all your scrubbing by touching the germy door handle after. Use a paper towel to shut off the sink and open the door. “The towel dispenser, door knob, all of that is contaminated grossly,” Tierno says. And rule three: Use common sense. “If you go somewhere that looks really dirty, don’t use it.” If there’s questionable schmutz on the seat, find another stall or employ the trusty hover. Just because it won’t make you sick doesn’t mean it’s not totally gross.
If you cover the toilet seat with a toilet paper, you will do more harm to yourself than good.
Flushing the toilet sprays bacteria from the bowl into the air, which means there are probably germs all over the toilet paper anyway.
Studies show that with every flush, fecal bacteria can be disseminated into the air, a process called aerosolization. Since that sends fecal matter everywhere, it might even be on the roll of toilet paper itself. At home, you can avoid this by flushing with the lid down. Out on the town, you have no idea what others are doing—and there’s often no lid to begin with. But at least you can take solace in knowing that you may have been wiping with a contaminated paper you whole life without a problem, so there’s no real reason to start worrying now.