Public toilets -- which is the cleanest and which is the dirtiest?
April 3, 2009 4:33 PM   Subscribe

I've always wondered which toilet is used the least and which one is used the most in a public restroom, especially a women's restroom that contains only stalls.

I would imagine that statistically, the handicapped stall is used the least and that there is probably not a large difference in the number of times each other toilet is used throughout the day, provided they are all functional. I think this is due to the different personality types of their users and the varying degrees of cleanliness at any given time.

What are your thoughts?
posted by bondgirl53001 to Society & Culture (54 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If it's available, I'll always use the handicapped stall.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 4:41 PM on April 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

Such a random question, I like it.

If it's a row, I tend to use the second from last. I figure the most common thing for people to do, is go to the first unoccupied one, so overall they get less used as you go down the line.
However, anybody who's doing anything seriously weird in the bathroom, will probably pick the furthest away.

And this is from a man's perspective. I also try to hold out and only use public toilets when absolutely necessary, so the majority of my time in bathroom stalls has been used for rolling joints rather than their traditional purpose.
posted by mannequito at 4:42 PM on April 3, 2009

I remember hearing on the radio years and years ago about a study (it could have been a real study or just some radio employee hanging out in the toilet for an hour, I honestly can't remember) that said that (at least in men's restrooms) the very first stall was actually used the least. I think the rationale was that everyone thought that the first stall was the most used, so they wouldn't use it.

I have absolutely nothing to back this up, but I hope it will help you on your journey.
posted by fantastico at 4:49 PM on April 3, 2009

I read somewhere (sorry, don't remember the source) that if a row of stalls is unoccupied, ladies will most often choose the second one in the row. The first one is actually chosen least often. So I always now try to use the first one in the row. Probably doesn't make a difference one way or another hygienically speaking, but it's a bit of psychological comfort if you care about that sort of thing.
posted by JenMarie at 4:49 PM on April 3, 2009

I'll never find it again, but I remember reading a study someone did that discovered the very first stall in the restroom is the least used. Apparently people tend to keep walking.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:50 PM on April 3, 2009

MEE TOO! I'm always doing a mind-check of which stall would be the least used.
These are all weird little things that I think through when presented with a new public bathroom. Sorry, no statistical data.

If there are only two, I usually use the small one, thinking that most people would choose the big one.

If there are three stalls, I never go into the middle one.

I always use the bathroom that is the hardest to get to.

Layout of the bathroom and door placement is a HUGE factor.
If the door opens at one end of the bathroom and I'm presented with one row of stalls.
a. I never go to the one facing the door, because I figure that THAT one would get used because it matches egress patterns.
b. I don't use the first or closest stall.

If the door opens and there are two rows of stalls, and there is a row that I have to make more than two turns to get to...
a. I figure those are the cleanest and use those.
b. Otherwise, I follow the rules above.

Then, a totally OTHER quandary that I struggle with, is if I'm faced with a row of stalls, no egress patterns really drawing people to any certain stalls, always wonder whether the stalls to the left or more toward the right would get used more.

Do people "read" the line of stall doors left to right to pick a stall?
Or, since most people are right handed/right footed, do they tend to veer more right to pick a stall?

I'm curious to see what other people think.
posted by raar at 4:52 PM on April 3, 2009

I always pick the handicapped stall, because I'm basically scared to death of touching any surfaces in public restrooms and it's sort of a nightmare to go into a stall and then be forced by the door's swinging radius to straddle the bowl just to get the door closed.
posted by gyusan at 4:55 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I aim for the last one, thinking I'll be less heard there, if other people come in and go for a closer one. If there's already people in the stalls, I aim for the stall that will give me an empty stall between me and them.

I don't calculate more or less used probability, i figure the level of germs in each is about equal. I just aim for a comfortable personal space.

Oh, and due to an extraordinary event last week, I now avoid entering work toilets at the same as a colleague, because one talked to me as we were peeing. OMG! WTF!
posted by b33j at 4:58 PM on April 3, 2009

Go to work extra early in the morning, go to the bathroom and in each stall use a marker to make a subtle identifying mark on the inside of each roll of toiler paper.

At the end of the day, tally up the amount of paper used per stall.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:04 PM on April 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

Googling came up with a minimum of two voluntary polls on random websites that show a preference to the final stall.

Website poll #1

re name of website: what

I cannot think of the potential name for whatever trade industry or statistician has investigated this. It's too bad that work-time studies aren't popular anymore - this would be a super popular dissertation.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 5:07 PM on April 3, 2009

At the end of the day, tally up the amount of paper used per stall.

-harlequin- You're a man or a woman after my own heart mind!
posted by applemeat at 5:10 PM on April 3, 2009

Go to work extra early in the morning, go to the bathroom and in each stall use a marker to make a subtle identifying mark on the inside of each roll of toiler paper.

At the end of the day, tally up the amount of paper used per stall.

This wouldn't work since the toilet paper use wouldn't be a constant. Some people use more than others and more is used when someone takes a shit. There's no way to tell how many times a stall was used just by looking at the toilet paper use.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 5:16 PM on April 3, 2009

I was curious about this too when I saw the description and subject in my ask.metafilter rss feed.

Now after reading the comments I'm willing to bet that one of you freaks is one of those people who doesn't understand the way optics work and covers up all the cracks between the door and sides of a stall with toilet paper. Which is probably the subject of another to find out why the hell people do that.

Also, I'm always curious as to which is filthier, the men's or the women's. naturally I suspect my fellow genital compadres to be the ones of greater filth. YMMV.
posted by TimeDoctor at 5:19 PM on April 3, 2009

Surely it would not be hard to investigate this with some reed switches, some magnets, and an arduino. Anyone have a couple of multi-stall bathrooms I can instrument? It's for science.
posted by hattifattener at 5:25 PM on April 3, 2009

This wouldn't work since the toilet paper use wouldn't be a constant.

I disagree. If your sample period is sufficient, all the factors you mention average themselves out of the picture. Like using a geiger counter - a click means nothing, but accumulated clicks soon start to paint a precise reading.
I wouldn't put much trust in results from just one day, as you don't have a reference point to know how much of any difference between stalls is noise or usage until you have at least another day, but a stall gets used hundreds of times per day. That's going to make short work of the effects of the variance in human behavior on the results.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:41 PM on April 3, 2009

No, because the one person who uses a TON OF PAPER (I mean you, high school friend) and who always uses, say, stall 2 due to his preference, would wonk the results. You don't need just time, you need a big sample size. For control purposes, you'd separate out male/female bathrooms and you'd control by only having the same layout of bathroom and number/type of stalls.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 5:44 PM on April 3, 2009

I heard the same report (radio? tv?) about the first stall being the least used, and ever since then I use the first stall whenever possible.

The weird thing is that cursory googling brings up a lot of hits also referencing this study, but I can't actually find the study itself. Perhaps we all engaged in a mass hallucination?
posted by DiscourseMarker at 5:44 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

If I can help it, I almost never use the stall closest to or directly adjacent to the door. I am not alone in this preference. I don't want to be barged in on, I don't want children crawling under the stall door, and I do NOT want to talk to anyone. Not even if I know you and like you. I want to pretend that everyone else is in another state.

If I am in an open public place, I also try not to use the ADA stall unless I absolutely have to, because someone might need it. In most cases, that tends to be the last stall. If this is not the case, I will use the last stall.

Casual observation leads me to believe that under normal circumstances women tend to go for the second or third stall, or if there are more stalls they tend to head for the ones in the center.

Other anecdotal stall use info: I used to work at a nightclub where the last stalls in the women's room were next to giant picture windows that were, yes, completely transparent and all activities therein were visible to passerby. Strangely enough, the women that used the stalls didn't seem to care that people could totally see them. They did, however, avoid using the fourth stall, as it was supposedly haunted by the ghost of a woman who had hanged herself there in the 1960s. Based on this, I have concluded that drunk women care less about privacy than they do about ghosts when choosing a bathroom stall. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
posted by louche mustachio at 5:46 PM on April 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

A couple of years ago the Today Show had Germ Week (maybe they have this every year, I don't know) and some expert said that the first stall in a row is always the least used, and therefore the cleanest. Ever since then, I have felt so conflicted--on the one hand I want to believe it's the cleanest one, but a little voice in my head says "How many millions of people watch the Today Show? They are ALL using the first stall now!"
posted by HotToddy at 5:47 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great question. I usually skip the first one because I figure it's used most, and because more people walk by it if I am in there and might be able to see me a bit through the crack in the door. Given 4 stalls, with the last stall being handicapped, I choose the third. I don't want to use the handicapped stall in case someone handicapped comes in and needs it.
posted by CoralAmber at 5:47 PM on April 3, 2009

First preference is for the handicapped stall unless there's someone in the stall next to it. Then it's whichever stall is furthest from the occupied one. I also usually try to pick one with a dry and preferably clean-looking seat.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 5:51 PM on April 3, 2009

We really need to find this study that the first is the least used. I remember it too, and have used the first stall ever since. Hoping that the results were not so widely spread that everyone else began changing their habit as well.
posted by saffry at 5:56 PM on April 3, 2009

Weighted companion cube:
No, I'd think the sample size should be big enough even in just one (well used) multi-stall bathroom. If the sample size (number of different people working in the building) wasn't big enough, the bathroom would be underused, or would not have been built. I can't see your friend having much of an effect on a stall - say if he uses the paper of three men, he's still too few, and even that is beside the point because he's not an abomination, he's may be an outlier, but he's an expected outlier of the expected bellcurve. In a company of 50-100 people, he's not going to be way out in a league of his own - there will be hot competition from the people who "nest", others like him, and so on.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:01 PM on April 3, 2009

Hey I actually found something [PDF]:

People's preference for middle items was apparent for both stall selection and roll selection. Overall, ofthe 86 rolls that were finished, 34 (40%) were from the two end stalls, significantly fewer than expected by chance, p

This was published in Psychological Science in 1995, and it studied a men's room, so I'm not sure if it's the one I heard about but still--some confirmation that we're not all confused.

posted by DiscourseMarker at 6:04 PM on April 3, 2009

In Environmental Psychology there is a famous study (Middlemist, Knowles and Matter 1976) that specifically measured this type of behaviour. I believe that one of their later studies may be the source that the radio used to suggest that the first stall is the least used (but the exact reference is buried somewhere in a second year psych text on my shelf). Anyways they were basically studying the effect that having one's personal space invaded would have on behaviour. It is an interesting read!
posted by saradarlin at 6:05 PM on April 3, 2009

Ok, so I fail at posting AND previewing today (and the p values got turned into html or something). ANYWAY, here's the other part of the quote:

As with the earlier position preference in the selection of products in the supermarket, the patrons in beach restrooms avoided the ends. Both the choice of stalls and the choice of rolls within the stalls were biased toward the ones in the middle.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 6:07 PM on April 3, 2009

I don't know what other women normally do, but I always use the handicap stall unless I see an actual handicapped person (or someone with a baby) in the restroom.

I think it has more to do with the amount of space to maneuver than assumed cleanliness, though. There's barely any room to just shut the door while you're in the regular stalls.
posted by lullaby at 6:16 PM on April 3, 2009

At work, I use the first stall, which is nearest to the door. Not because of any cleanliness issues, but because it's the only one with a properly working latch.

To those who use the handicapped stalls while not being handicapped: do you park in handicapped spaces if you don't see any handicapped people trying to park just then? Please don't do this.
posted by jtron at 6:25 PM on April 3, 2009

Depending on the location:
* if forced to to in a washroom with questionable cleanliness, I walk down until I find a stall that looks clean enough and grab it, regardless of location
* if the washroom's really busy (lineups), i use whatever's available that's acceptably clean.
* otherwise, I use the last one, or second to last one if the last one is handicapped. Unless that's the only stall with someone next to it. Then I'll pick the one furthest down the line with the fewest neighbors.
posted by cgg at 6:41 PM on April 3, 2009

To those who use the handicapped stalls while not being handicapped: do you park in handicapped spaces if you don't see any handicapped people trying to park just then? Please don't do this.

I think you misunderstand the purpose of these stalls. They are not analogous to handicapped parking spaces. They are there to be used, and it is quite proper for people to do so.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:47 PM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

I too saw some kind of report that was done, only it was on mens urinals. Which ones men chose and why. Whether a person wanted to have another person on their right or left at the urinal or heaven forbid....both! It was pretty in depth and it actually made a lot of sense. It was interesting as is this question.

As a man, I would choose the stall that looked cleanest and least disgusting, regardless of the location....strictly speaking from an ex-factory workers point of view.
posted by Taurid at 6:55 PM on April 3, 2009

Regarding Male vs Female toilets, a friend who was a cleaner said that female toilets were the worst, by far, with fecal matter and menstrual products being used as drawing materials. I guess men just aren't as artistic.

BTW, I'm female but not that kind of artist.
posted by b33j at 7:02 PM on April 3, 2009

The germ expert several people have mentioned is probably Dr. Charles P. Gerba, inventor of the commodograph. His NBC Germ Week appearance is here. And here's an article that quotes him on stall choice from a germaphobe's perspective: The middle stall of a public restroom usually has the most bacteria because people use it the most. "I guess people like company," Gerba said. The first stall will probably be cleaner. No cites, but he's probably

Me, I use whatever's open and hasn't been rendered disgusting by some woman who thinks that squatting and peeing all over the seat is acceptable behaviour.
posted by maudlin at 7:03 PM on April 3, 2009

Ack! Once again:

No cites, but he's probably referring to the article DiscourseMarker found. And he's not squeamish about seats himself:

[He] says that because of the care people take when they're about to sit, other parts of the bathroom are much more prone to delivering bacterial infections. "One of the cleanest things in the bathrooms we find are the toilet seats," Gerba said. "I'd put my fanny on it any time -- unless it's wet; then you'd want to wipe it first."
posted by maudlin at 7:05 PM on April 3, 2009

Go to work extra early in the morning, go to the bathroom and in each stall use a marker to make a subtle identifying mark on the inside of each roll of toiler paper.

At the end of the day, tally up the amount of paper used per stall.

I like this idea, and I like some of the other ideas of how to find out which stall is used most too. Not because they're good, but mostly because they miss the obvious: ask the damn cleaners which stall gets used most. They'll tell you which one uses the most paper, which one gets the dirtiest, which one always has overflowing sanity bins, and which one gets blocked or broken most...etc etc.

Also take into account that female toilets receive heavier usage in terms of numbers of visits - there are always queues in some places. So the actual rate of usage for a specific stall may be more dependent on availability than in the corresponding male toilets. Not that a woman wouldn't choose a certain stall given the choice, but rather they have more limited options at any given time.
posted by Sova at 7:23 PM on April 3, 2009

Urh, 'sanity bins' might profitably be read as 'sanitary bins'. Though if you wish to deposit your sanity, please remember to put it in a little brown bag it first. There's a good girl.
posted by Sova at 7:30 PM on April 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

Until last year, I always, always took the handicapped stall (which is generally the last one in the row). Then last year I was watching some morning talk show and they did all kinds of studies on public bathrooms. Turns out the first stall is the cleanest and most rarely used. I can't back it up because it's late and I'm lazy, but that changed my thinking entirely.
posted by Lullen at 7:49 PM on April 3, 2009

doesn't answer the question of which is cleaner, but for the boys: which urinal should I use? (flash)
posted by QuakerMel at 7:54 PM on April 3, 2009

mostly because they miss the obvious: ask the damn cleaners which stall gets used most.

For what it's worth, I was writing that suggestion when I deleted it favour of simply checking the paper yourself. Doing it yourself cuts out the middle-man, and is more discreet, and gives you agency over the matter, so to me it seems a better solution. (Additionally, in my situation, there is a significant language barrier between me and the cleaners. Asking an off-the-wall question like which stall gets the most use, just isn't going to work. And probably isn't going to end well either.)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:58 PM on April 3, 2009

I'm always curious as to which is filthier, the men's or the women's

I cleaned lots of washrooms early in my bartending career, when I was low on the totem pole, and in those pubs without a doubt the women's. The exception is if there was a fistfight in the gents and blood ended up flying.

In my office there are three stalls and the middle one is by far the most used (I'm a woman). I think this is because of the exceptionally large looking gap between door and wall in stall #1 and the fact that many of us can't put our feet on the ground if using the barrier-free stall (honestly), but there you have it. In large public washrooms I just pick a random centrally located one, neither end.
posted by jamesonandwater at 7:59 PM on April 3, 2009

I'm surprised that so many people choose stalls based on cleanliness rather than privacy, which is always my first priority. But then again, I'm a guy and when I use the stalls it generally... takes a while.

Two comments I'd like to make:

jtron, if everyone were to reserve the handicapped stalls for people with a disability that required them, they'd practically never get used. I'm a student, and there are so many public washrooms on campus -- each with a double-wide stall -- and so few people that require them that, when you factor in how often people use public washrooms, the probability that you'll actually be taking away a handicapped stall from someone who needs it is so slim that you (or at least I) can go ahead and not feel bad. Not to mention that most men's rooms have only two stalls. And one is always clogged.

TimeDoctor, I think that people consciously understand that they really aren't that visible through the crack between the door and the stall. It's just really unnerving when the crack is an inch wide and you can see everything outside. When you're on the toilet, you don't really want to see other people around.
posted by wsp at 8:17 PM on April 3, 2009

Small problem with the toilet paper test: If one stall is a deemed as a preferable stall for Number 2 (aka the Shitter Stall), then people would use more t.p. in that stall, per visit.

(Not intended as a derail about pooping/no-pooping in public bathrooms: shit happens.)
posted by NikitaNikita at 9:11 PM on April 3, 2009

I've also read the first stall-least used study. The article I read theorized that most women would assume the first would be the most used and therefore the most dirty so all would automatically choose another one.

Personally, I (a woman) start with stall number one and begin kicking in doors to see which one has the least pee on the seats. I don't use a stall which isn't well-lit because there may be something there I can't see.

As far as men's/women's dirtiness levels, from my days of cleaning restrooms in a retail store I'm going with women. Women are apparently more likely to go insane and smear their poo on the walls. Or maybe it was there revenge for bad service, I don't know. Plus they do weird things with their used sanitary paraphernalia.
posted by frobozz at 9:43 PM on April 3, 2009

*their revenge, gah
posted by frobozz at 9:44 PM on April 3, 2009

Damn, looks like everyone heard the same info and now we're all using the first stall. Wonder what the results would be if they re-did the study now.
posted by JenMarie at 11:13 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I *always* use the handicapped stall and I claim claustrophobia as my disability.
posted by torquemaniac at 12:05 AM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Women's restrooms definitely get dirtier on a regular basis. I have observed this myself, and have had my observations backed up by cleaning personnel.

It's not because women are inherently dirtier, per se, it's just that women use the restroom more often, and for more things. They are more likely to bring infants and young children to the bathroom with them, and are more likely to be the ones changing diapers. I have seen a wider variety of contaminants in the ladies room; besides urine and feces (which sometimes end up an alarming distance from the toilet) there's menstrual blood, boogers (who wipes their boogers on the wall? WHO DOES THAT?) and God knows what mystery substance you have extracted from the infernal bowels of your purse. It also seems they are more likely to fill all the toilets with toilet paper so they overflow.

They are also far more likely to stay longer in the bathroom; restrooms are considered social places for women in a way they most definitely are not for men. So they'll haaaannnng out, put on makeup, apply lotion, foosh hairspray into the air - all of which contribute to the mess.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:49 AM on April 4, 2009

OH, and they also do that "hovering" thing that leads to pee getting all over the seats and the floor. Seriously, incredibly disgusting.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:50 AM on April 4, 2009

I bet a lot of people choose the handicapped stall first (I sure do, I hate trying to manouvre around the toilet in a narrow stall and my coat brushing up on it & stuff).

I think lighting would make a big difference. I recently noticed I was automatically making a beeline for the brightest stall I could see- the one with the ceiling light directly above it. I bet a lot of people do this unintentionally- they just notice the brightly lit stall the most, and head there. It would be different in different restrooms, if that's the case, depending on how the ceiling lights were arranged.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:44 AM on April 4, 2009

6'3, 260lbs... you bet your ass I use the handicap stall if available and reasonably clean.
posted by edgeways at 2:23 AM on April 4, 2009

An additional layer of complexity is how well you know the restroom in question.

Lots of coffee leaves me to know the work bathroom fairly well, so I know that the fourth stall doesn't really stay closed and the fifth stall's toilet has some sort of super-charged flush from hell that threatens to suck you into another dimension. So, if the bathroom's empty I use stall 3, if that's occupied than 1, if both are occupied than 2, then handicapped, then 5, then 4.

Also, I try not to enter the bathroom with a coworker and then take an adjacent stall if others are available.
posted by teragram at 5:04 AM on April 4, 2009

I heard that the first stall was the least used maybe 10 years ago. Anecdotally, at work I know for a fact that the middle stall is used most infrequently, because the cleaning crew leaves the seats up at night after cleaning and the seat in the middle stall will be left up several hours later than the two end stalls.

If it's a restroom you'll be using regularly you can probably figure out what the usage pattern is.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:42 AM on April 4, 2009

It's weird - I've read the first stall isn't used much either, but I think it must vary bathroom to bathroom - at work, the first stall is DEFINITELY used the most - from personal observation and the fact that it's far dirtier than the other ones. Unfortunately people seem to keep using it when it's dirty and just put down those horrible toilet seat covers, which I hate with a passion because they encourage people to be as gross as possible and leave it for the next person.
posted by agregoli at 7:28 AM on April 4, 2009

I also heard the same study. I don't know if I would place it as far back as 10 years ago, but maybe 5-7. It did not convince me to use the first stall, although I think about that report often.

As for myself, I always pick stalls based on cleanliness. And surprisingly, usually the farther down the line I go, the better the chances of finding a clean stall. I've been in a lot of public restrooms (women's), but I have never seen poo smeared on walls. Then again, I do not frequent bars and that sounds like drunken behavior. I did have a few turns cleaning out small office's restrooms and the women's was always much cleaner than the men's. It was like the men just didn't care about their aim at all.

I used to use handicapped stalls, but I avoid them if at all possible now. One time I was in a restroom and, out of habit, used the handicapped stall. I took my fine time and went to leave. As I was leaving, I found that a handicapped person had come in behind me, tried to use a regular stall and gotten themselves rather stuck in a half-falling position with their pants down and the door wide open. I was horrified and asked them if they needed help, but they knew full well which stall I came from and just glared at me angrily. Ugh.
posted by bristolcat at 8:59 AM on April 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

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