My "No. 1" Question about Hygiene
August 24, 2010 6:49 AM   Subscribe

Which is cleaner? Touch no surfaces and don't wash your hands during a public restroom visit or touch various surfaces and then wash your hands?

My SO and I argue about this all the time.

I contend that if I can touch no surfaces with my hands-- restroom door, toilet handle, soap, sink, hand dryer/paper towels, door--and then leave without washing my hands that this is more hygienic than touching all the various surfaces and then washing your hands since you then still have to touch faucet handle, paper towel/hand dryer, door, etc.

If I can touch nothing but myself on a public bathroom trip, this has got to be cleaner than having to touch all the other things in there, right?

(Obviously this question does not apply where there are automatic soap, water dispensers etc.)
posted by Any Moose In a Storm to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In principle the process of washing your hands (or washing anything) can be less than 100% effective, so yes, a more stringent degree of cleanliness is obtainable by not touching anything in the first place. (That, however, is also not absolutely 100% guaranteed, since even if you touch nothing you are still exposed to the atmosphere and particles can be deposited on your skin - personally I prefer to wear a spacesuit at all times just to be sure.) But I will add that this seems like a really academic point for your and your SO to be arguing about all the time. You folks have got to get some more meaningful arguments.
posted by grizzled at 6:55 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Once you have a paper towel on your hands, you can then avoid touching any other surfaces directly. Open the door with a paper towel, hold it with your foot, then chuck the paper towel before you exit.
posted by mkb at 6:58 AM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

The way I look at it is that you go to the bathroom a couple times of day, and rarely wash your hands in between visits. So, washing your hands there is not just cleaning off bathroom germs, but also bacteria that's accumulated on your hands since the last time you washed them.
posted by genekelly'srollerskates at 7:00 AM on August 24, 2010 [29 favorites]

Going to the bathroom is just a convenient time to wash your hands in general, not necessarily just to get the grossness of the public restroom off of them but also to remove any other dirt and germs that have accumulated since last time you went to the bathroom. So yeah, you should do it. Then do what mkb said on your way out.
posted by amro at 7:01 AM on August 24, 2010

Er, what genekelly'srollerskates said.
posted by amro at 7:02 AM on August 24, 2010

I recall reading some advice columnist who came to the conclusion that, short of the full sterilization process that surgeons go through, it doesn't make that much difference whether you simply rinse your hands or if you soap 'em up. And the anti-bacterial dispensers may do more harm than good in terms of building more resistant bugs.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:02 AM on August 24, 2010

Washing your hands while in the bathroom is more about making sure you wash your hands, period. It's mostly just a convenient time to wash your hands. There's not much in the bathroom that is significantly more filthy than your everyday environment. I mean, there's shit, but if you think there aren't trace amounts of shit literally smeared all over every object you touch....
posted by pjaust at 7:02 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

@zombieflanders: Really? Soap doesn't kill things, but it aids significantly in the mechanical removal of crap from your hands and there are some pretty good studies linking hand washing in hospitals to infection rates.....
posted by pjaust at 7:04 AM on August 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

Your profile lists Gender as 'Kibbles and Bits' (good one.) Unless you have mad ninja peeing skills and can get your dog food out hands-free, you'll be touching an area full of your own bacterial flora. Look up pinworm as one example. I'd see this as reason enough to risk touching the sink.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:05 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

If I can touch nothing but myself...

"Yourself" (and other people's selves) is the source of all of the dirty. If you touch nothing in the bathroom, you will get nothing in the bathroom dirty, but I don't imagine you will continue to touch nothing throughout the rest of your day. You're just transfering your filth from the bathroom to the rest of the world, which is worse because at least other people are aware that the bathroom can be a dirty place. People aren't as careful about doorknobs, elevator buttons, railings, etc. So, for the rest of our sakes, please please please wash your hands.
posted by fermezporte at 7:06 AM on August 24, 2010 [10 favorites]

Washing your hands is at least as much about protecting other clean than it is about protecting yourself, as the main source of "contamination" isn't the restroom itself, but your own body. If you're taking a piss, you're bound to come into contact with your own bodily fluids, even if only sweat, so anything that's in there--virii, bacteria, whatever--is getting on your hands, which is getting on anything you touch after that, even after you leave the restroom.
posted by valkyryn at 7:12 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I know someone who tested this (or something very similar) as a microbiology project during their degree. The answer they came to was that it's better to touch things and wash your hands afterward, but only if you can avoid touching the handle of the tap right at the end.

The explanation they came up with was that a well maintained public toilet isn't actually all that dirty when compared with things like keyboards, door handles, etc. throughout our environments that dozens of people touch on a daily basis, leaving and picking up germs that accumulate on your hands throughout the day. So touching things in the toilet doesn't make your hands dramatically dirtier, but washing your hands does make them dramatically cleaner, if you do it thoroughly. The problem is the tap handles - you and dozens of others touch the (wet) tap handles with your dirty hands, then these dirty tap handles are the first thing you touch with your clean hands. In my friend's tests, this was enough to effectively get your hands back to the pre-public-toilet state of dirtiness.

I should stress that this was a tiny study - a small number of people in one or two sets of fairly well-maintained shared toilets - so use caution when generalising from it. I expect the design of tap handle matters a lot as well: if you can turn off the tap without using your hand (or only using a tiny part of your hand), then obviously contamination from tap to hand won't be a problem.

Most people are surprisingly bad at washing their hands (as tested by trying to wash off an ordinarily invisible dye then checking their hands under UV light to see what they missed), leaving large areas pretty much untouched. This is how NHS staff are taught to wash their hands (scroll down).

As a side note, unbroken skin is a relatively hostile environment for bacteria and viruses (dry, acidic conditions, various degradative enzymes, a thriving population of "friendly" bacteria already in the ecological niche and a solid physical barrier keeping visitors out) so, while good personal hygiene is undoubtedly important for prevention of disease transmission, it's not something to get unduly worried about.

I default to British English, so "toilet" = bathroom and "tap" = faucet.
posted by metaBugs at 7:13 AM on August 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

mkb's technique above is how I was taught to wash my hands by the hospital staff when I was a volunteer in a hospital.

After washing our hands, upon exiting the bathroom, we were told we shouldn't touch anything directly with our hands and should use a paper towel.
posted by zizzle at 7:18 AM on August 24, 2010

The assumption that touching yourself is 'clean' is the start of the problem. To be blunt, your junk is dangling around in your pants all day. Both ends. In a warm, dark environment. The sort that bacteria thrives in. Sure, it's probably "less worse" than a dirty floor, but it's far from 'clean'. Wash your hands, thoroughly and with soap. The soap helps grab the various contaminants from your skin so the water can wash them away.

If you're really paranoid, grab a paper towel before starting the water, wash up, shut off the tap with the paper, use it to open the door and then throw it away.

Just don't assume you're "clean" enough to go without washing at all.
posted by wkearney99 at 7:21 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Washing your hands is more hygienic than not touching stuff in the bathroom. The world outside the bathroom is full of other people who don't wash their hands. Every public thing you touch (maybe the door going into the restaurant?) might have just been touched by someone who only seconds earlier had his finger a couple knuckles deep in his asshole.

So wash your hands and be careful where you put them next. Wash your hands without touching anything in the bathroom if you can help it, because there's shit and piss everywhere in the bathroom (especially on all handles). You can grab a paper towel when you go in and use it to manipulate faucets, soap dispensers, dryers, and doors. Then go out into the world cognizant that there is also shit and piss everywhere outside the bathroom.
posted by pracowity at 7:23 AM on August 24, 2010

Most of the things people get infected with (at least in the industrialized world) are not from fecal contamination, so I'm another vote for what genekelly'srollerskates said.

Also, part of your immune response is based on encountering pathogens, shredding the little bastards and developing antibodies against some likely proteins. From the point of view of not getting sick, or clearing infections quickly, there comes a point where trying to absolutly maximize personal hygene is going to have diminishing returns.

While it's not exactly my best sterile field technique, I always dry my hands on my pants. It's environmentally sensible and I know where those have been.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:27 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you feel that touching yourself only keeps you clean, wipe your ass then lick your hand and see how long it takes for you to projectile vomit.

Seriously, just wash your hands. Another benefit is that others in the bathroom won't see you leaving without washing your hands and think you're disgusting.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:36 AM on August 24, 2010

Keep in mind just being in the bathroom will get the germs on your hands since its in the air.

As long as you wash your hands before leaving the bathroom you will be fine.
posted by majortom1981 at 7:41 AM on August 24, 2010

Typically when a toilet flushes it sends a vaporous cloud of water particles and feces/urine in the air. Closing the toilet seat will minimize that effect but public washrooms have no toilet seats. Every time you are in a bathroom during or after a toilet flush you will potentially get some of that on your hands just through air contact.
posted by JJ86 at 7:50 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Rhett and Link can show you their steps to having the Perfect Bathroom Trip.
posted by I'm Doing the Dishes at 7:54 AM on August 24, 2010

How to visit the restroom and stay clean. (SLYTMusicVideo)
posted by 47triple2 at 7:56 AM on August 24, 2010

Kid Charlemagne, I disagree.

Most gastroenteritis ('stomach bug'/'food poisoning') comes from fecal contamination (E coli, etc.) in your food. How does the fecal contamination get into your food? Because of people who don't wash their hands after using the bathroom, for one...
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:59 AM on August 24, 2010

I'm Doing the Dishes beat me to it.
posted by 47triple2 at 8:08 AM on August 24, 2010

My grandfather, a life-long neurosurgeon, when using a bathroom to take a piss, would consistently enter, wash his hands, stuff an extra paper towel in his pocket after drying the hands, take a piss, and use the paper towel on the door handle on the way out. He made the point that if you wash in the morning, theoretically your junk stays relatively of the same cleanliness inside your trousers until you touch it with your hands next, at which point your hands have touched hundreds of things, most likely.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:13 AM on August 24, 2010

I don't know how urban mythy this might be, but I read "somewhere" that bacteria can travel through paper towels with ease.
posted by dance at 8:18 AM on August 24, 2010

even if you are clean, your midsection is still dirty due to bacteria that live on your skin.
posted by wooh at 8:23 AM on August 24, 2010

Response by poster: Just to ease some minds, I almost always wash my hands, and use the paper towel barrier. But occasionally the bathroom is gross or there's no paper towels. It seems that no matter how dirty my junk might be the surfaces of particular bathrooms have to be much worse.
posted by Any Moose In a Storm at 8:26 AM on August 24, 2010

I read something a while back (I thought it was Slate, but I couldn't find it) that said that you should always wash hands after touching your waist-to-leg region, because even if you don't, say, piss on your hands, there's still a lot of bacteria that hang out all over that area (think like your belt). And soap+water is practically 99% effective at getting rid of that nasty stuffs.
posted by General Malaise at 8:48 AM on August 24, 2010

Or, what wooh said.
posted by General Malaise at 8:49 AM on August 24, 2010

Toilet flushing aerosolizes whatever is in the toilet (very good reason to keep your toothbrush hidden away at home..). Walking into a public restroom and not touching anything and then walking out, probably coats you in a film of toilet water. Best bet is to use your method and then wash your hands outside after you leave.
posted by jardinier at 9:22 AM on August 24, 2010

Best answer: Here's the relevant excerpt from wooh's link (
I've said this before: your boxer-shorts region--from belly button to mid-thigh--is crawling with germs known as coliform bacteria. These bacteria originated in your intestine, and some of them are deadly. Remember punji stakes? They were sharpened sticks that the Vietcong concealed point up along trails and daubed with excrement. If you stepped on one you had a good chance of contracting a fatal infection. Similarly, an otherwise not-so-serious gunshot or knife injury could kill you if it perforated the intestine and allowed coliform bacteria to spread around your abdomen.

But you know this (or at least you ought to). What you may not know is that washing will not make the coliform bacteria go away. They're holed up in the pores of your skin and nothing short of sandblasting--certainly not your morning shower--is going to get them out. Showering merely gets rid of the ones that have strayed onto the surface. The bacteria won't do much harm if they stay put, but when you urinate your fingers come in contact with Mister P. long enough for the coliform bacteria in your pores to hop aboard. Your fingers subsequently touch lots of other infectible items. If you don't wash your hands with soap and water (soap gets rid of the skin oil that the bacteria stick to) . . . hello, Typhoid Mary.

It now dawns on you: jeez, if merely touching my privates is enough to transmit bacteria, it doesn't matter if I pee or not! Just so. Urine itself is actually fairly sterile. Cecil has read reports of it being used during wartime in poor countries as--I'm not making this up--a sort of battlefield Bactine. (U.S. doctors generally blanch at this.) The lesson to draw from this, however, is not that you can go forth dripping (yuck), but rather that just because you didn't pee on your fingers doesn't mean you can skip washing up.
posted by Alt F4 at 9:26 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also: there's "dirty" and there's "dirty." There's actually more stuff living under your fingernails than in most toilets, believe it or not. So while there's plenty of foul-smelling and evil-tasting stuff on floors, toilets, sinks, etc., most of these are actually pretty sterile and thus not prime vectors for disease transmission. The human body, and the fluids that come from it, are far, far more likely to carry disease than anything else you might pick up from a hard surface.
posted by valkyryn at 9:51 AM on August 24, 2010

I spent several months once covering this topic with grade schoolers--like 400 or more. I was in a ton of classrooms with this little video, some Glo-germ and a blacklight. It was during a shigella outbreak. Washing your hands cuts down on the spread of some communicable diseases. But don't stick your dirty fingers in your mouth, eat boogers, or rub your eyes with dirty hands either.

Fecal material spreads lots of really bad things including norovirus, shigella, ecoli. What is really gross is getting something like that from food poisoning, and realizing that someone else didn't wash their hands, and that is how you got sick.

And unless you are a baseball player, pee shouldn't get on your hands either.
posted by chocolatetiara at 9:56 AM on August 24, 2010

Purrell put some convincing ads in bathrooms to illustrate this topic.
posted by I'm Doing the Dishes at 9:58 AM on August 24, 2010

Rhetorical question: if one's junk is clean, why do people get all freaked out about touching door handles?

I assume the answer is that other people's junk is dirty, but mine is clean, right?

ALWAYS wash your hands after using the restroom.

All this does is brings your hands to a general state of cleanliness. If you are going to be handling food or patients, you have to wash your hands again when you enter the kitchen or patient's room.

So all you freaks out there, please stop using paper towels to touch the door handles in the bathroom. Just because your OCD is confined to inside the bathroom doesn't mean you are being OCD.
posted by gjc at 12:03 PM on August 24, 2010

Most gastroenteritis ('stomach bug'/'food poisoning') comes from fecal contamination (E coli, etc.) in your food. How does the fecal contamination get into your food? Because of people who don't wash their hands after using the bathroom, for one...

Pathogenic E. coli (O157 H7) comes from ruminants (cows and deer) - You could use the bathroom right after someone who has been infected, but O157 H7 only infects roughly 1 person in 100,000 per year and most of them aren't going to be out using public restrooms after the whole bloody diarrhea thing kicks in so the odds are pretty low.

Other food borne illness capable of fecal transmission are more prevalent, but the really they can't compete with influenza and its 36,000 cases per 100,000 per year.

I'm not saying that fecal borne illness is unheard of or that you won't be very unhappy if you pick up Hep A or Shigella, but most people only go to the bathroom a few times a day and do it in very select places. Compare that with how many times you breath or rub your eyes after touching a surface you didn't just wipe down with 40% ethanol.

E. coli is pretty much one of my dream Jeopardy categories.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:13 PM on August 24, 2010

I'm on to you, Weiner.
posted by McBearclaw at 6:29 PM on September 1, 2010

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