We had no idea Americans have such a fear and loathing of toilet seats. We discovered that when we received a letter from a reader of our newspaper column. She wanted to know a quick way to sterilize the seat in public restrooms. She complained that back pain had made it more difficult to crouch over grungy seats in movie theaters, gas stations and fast food restaurants.
We tried to be reassuring, pointing out that people don’t catch horrible diseases from sitting on the toilet. A search of the medical literature turned up no cases and dermatologists we consulted knew of no instances of venereal diseases transmitted in such a casual manner.
Although sterilizing a toilet seat in a public rest room is virtually impossible, we offered her two suggestions. One was to carry alcohol wipes to clean the seat. Another option was a dilute bleach solution that would probably kill most organisms. This might be rather inconvenient to carry around, however.
Then the mail started pouring in and it became clear that our answer was inadequate. Disposable paper seat covers were the most popular solution by far. One writer told us, “Like the people who have American Express cards, I don’t leave home without it.”
Many of our readers pack disposable seat covers whenever they travel. According to one, “I travel by car a great deal and am often forced to visit rest stops. In California the bathrooms are notoriously filthy and quite often have no seat covers or even toilet paper. I always carry both in my car and put some in my purse before using the facilities. It’s a very simple and relatively inexpensive solution to the problem.”
Clearly, people prefer not to let their skin come into contact with seats where others have rested their naked derrieres. Without benefit of a paper seat protector, many people tend to crouch or hover rather than to perch. Urologists tell us that this is not a good practice. They have found that women who stand over the seat instead of sitting have a slower release of urine and more residual urine left after emptying the bladder. This could increase the risk of a urinary tract infection. They had found that many of the women they were treating for incontinence did not sit.
Then there is the issue of sprinkling. When someone crouches over the toilet there is a strong likelihood the seat will get wet. Many people do not have the courtesy to dry off the seat afterwards. Hence this famous ditty:
“If you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be neat and wipe the seat.” Another variation: “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie.”
Sadly, though, a lot of folks do not follow this advice.
One listener to our radio show reminded us that this issue is extremely culture-bound. He pointed out that in much of the world people crouch low out of necessity, as the “throne” is unknown. He added that hemorrhoids are far less common in such cultures, but we have no studies on the urological consequences.
Our hunt through the medical literature did turn up one disquieting fact. Public restroom surfaces are commonly contaminated with invisible bacteria, usually those carried in the intestine. Microbiologists recovered these not only from toilet seats, but also from flush and tap handles and doorknobs, which is quite a bit more disconcerting since you have to touch them to get out of the restroom.
We heard from one visitor:
“I have NEVER understood why people get so distressed about germs that might land on the back of their thighs. Seriously… are you going to serve a meal there later or something? Just sit down and get it over with. The REST of us do not like sitting in YOUR pee on the seat after you’ve done that whole “hover” thing.
“If you’re in a disgusting bathroom and you just can’t live with the fact that you might have a germ or two on your thighs, then why aren’t you carrying wet wipes in your purse so you can wash your backside when you’re done? That would seem more logical to me.
“But then again, I’ve never understood the whole worry about a dirty toilet seat. It’s dirty even if it looks clean; fecal microbes get into the air and land on everything when the toilet gets flushed. It’s common. There was even a Mythbusters episode about it. Did you know the floors and counters in your KITCHEN have more germs and more potential to do you harm than what is on a toilet seat?” M.O.
Should we advise people to use alcohol wipes on the tap handles? Should you use a clean paper towel to open the door after washing your hands? We don’t have the answers to these questions, but we also don’t have documented epidemics of diarrhea from public restroom contamination.
Naomi offered this comment:
“Getting wet from sitting on a wet seat is an inconvenience and nothing more. If your skin gets wet, dry it. No other part of you is apt to get wet.
“The reminder about faucet handles, door handles, soap dispensers, etc. is much more important – and you’re NOT in a hurry on the way out. LEAVE with clean hands, that’s what counts.”
We were set straight on one issue in this letter from a reader:
“Your dermatologists are wrong when they say you can’t get anything from a toilet seat. During World War II I worked in the office of the camp where my husband was stationed. We shared a rest room with the Motor Pool–some of the biggest roughest, toughest females I’ve ever seen. All the females in our office got those ‘little creepy crawly’ things. It was very embarrassing to go to the clinic and be examined for treatment. Needless to say, after that experience I do not ever sit on a public toilet. I am 82 and it is not an easy task!”
Share your own bathroom experiences and solutions below in the comment section.