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Public restrooms don’t exactly have a reputation for cleanliness. Placing a thin, paper toilet seat cover seems to make complete sense — by adding that extra protective layer, you are safe from all those nasty germs, right? Well, it turns out those toilet seat covers do diddly-squat to protect you.
Bacteria and viruses are so tiny that they’re able to pass through the relatively large holes in toilet seat covers. Using toilet paper instead of a toilet seat cover is not a suitable option, either. In fact, it can actually make things worse. Placing pieces of toilet paper around the seat only increases the surface area for germs to multiply.
However, there is a bit of good news — the germs and bacteria found on toilet seats are not what you should be worried about.
“That’s because toilet seats are not a vehicle for the transmission of any infectious agents — you won’t catch anything,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of Preventative Medicine at Vanderbilt University, told The Huffington Post.
That does not mean there aren’t disease-causing bacteria, such a E. coli, on toilet seats. However, the skin on your butt acts as a protective barrier.
The bathroom bacteria danger you should be worried about comes after you flush, when tiny bits of fecal matter are propelled into the air and settle on surfaces, possibly contaminating hands then spread to the eyes, nose or mouth. This gross phenomenon is known as “toilet plume,” explained Kelly Reynolds, a public health researcher at the University of Arizona.
“Where you find the organisms in larger quantities would be the underside of the toilet seat, because that is not cleaned as often [as the top]. As you flush, you bring up the contents in the bowl,” said Philip Tierno, MD, Director of Clinical Microbiology and Diagnostic Immunology at New York University Medical Center. “It’s not just your germs, it’s germs from other people.”
Some toilets can even spray as far as 20 feet. If you’re using a public toilet without a lid, Tierno recommends opening the door before you flush and to get out of the way as quickly as possible.
But there may be an upside to toilet seat covers — they might make things a bit cleaner by encouraging people to sit on the toilet rather than squatting over it, reducing general splatter.
Reynolds warns that the greatest health risk in restrooms is the spread of fecal matter to the mouth, which starts from the hands. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends to lather your hands with soap and scrub for about 20 seconds before washing them off in the sink.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.