Public Bathrooms Might Not be as Dirty as You Think

New research will quell your fears about how many germs are lurking in the restroom.

public-bathroom-sign
Photo by Richard Boll/Getty Images

As you hit the road for holiday travels, you’re inevitably going to hit up a rest stop that—let’s be honest—grosses you out more than a little. Good news, germaphobes: Recent research published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology suggests that those bathrooms may not be as dirty as they seem.

Researchers at San Diego State University sterilized various surfaces in public restrooms—from toilet seats to soap dispensers—and then studied bacteria structure, function, and volume in the restroom. They figured that enteric bacteria, or bacteria found in intestines, would be quickly dispersed every time the toilet flushed. Although that was true, that same bacteria couldn’t survive long in cold, dry, high-oxygen environments. What took over, instead, was skin germs. In fact, study author Jack Gilbert suggested that a public restroom is about as healthy (or unhealthy) as your home. Put down the Swiffer. Let us explain.

After eight weeks of study, they found that germs from skin and the outdoors made up 68 to 98 percent of the bacteria communities, and the germs you’d expect to find in a bathroom (you know what we mean) made up less than 15 percent. Gilbert, who has conducted similar studies at homes and in hospitals, found that the restroom environment was the most “stable.” The skin microbes always took over, and the enteric bacteria didn’t have what it takes to survive.

Moral of the story? Although public restrooms have gotten a pretty bad rap, there's probably nothing too scary lurking behind the stall doors.