by Carole Jackson>, Bottom Line Health
When you enter a public bathroom and, on the wall, you see a dispenser filled with toilet seat coversâ¦do you take one of them?
Hamlet was wrong. To cover or not to coverâthatÂ is the question!
On the one hand, thereâs an undeniable âick factorâ when it comes to sitting on top of something that countless bare-butted strangers have sat on before youâespeciallyÂ if you spot bits of water, urine or (worst of all) feces on the seat. So part of you is probably eager to do whatever you can to shield yourself from germs and avoid getting yourself wet and/or soiled.
But on the other hand, seat covers are generally made of porous tissue paper that is laughably thin. They have to be that thin, or they might clog toilets. And donât let the waxiness of the paper fool youâif there is liquid on the seat, it is likely to bleed through the cover. So another part of you is probably thinking,Â How protective can these covers truly be? And even if a germ does touch me, could I really get a disease that way?
So I went straight to the top of the heap to get to the, er, bottom of things, calling Charles Gerba, PhD, a professor of environmental microbiology at The University of Arizona in Tucsonâbecause he is widely known as âDr. Germâ for his extensive research about bacteria and organisms covering public surfaces.
THE MUCK OF THE MATTER
In essence, hereâs what he told me: âI donât know of any scientific data on this specific topic, but based on my past germ research, in my opinion, most toilet seat covers are useless,â he said.
First, we discussed what sort of germs you might find on a toilet seat. If youâve bought into the common misconception that toilet seats carry sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), youâve been fooled. The organisms that cause STDs, such as the viruses that cause herpes and AIDS and the bacteria that cause gonorrhea and syphilis, canât survive on cold, hard toilet seats for more than a few minutes, Dr. Gerba said. So by the time someone leaves a stall and youâre ready to sit on the toilet, odds are, those types of germs are dead.
Other germs can survive on a toilet seat indefinitely, thoughâsuch as fecal bacteria (includingÂ E. coli) and the MRSA bacterium (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which can be transferred from a personâs skin to the toilet seat.
But how, exactly, would those types of germs infect you? âI suppose itâs physiologically possible, but the chances of it happening are very, very slim,â said Dr. Gerba.
For example, one way for fecal bacteria to be transmitted to your body would be for you to have an open soreâbut youâd have to have an open sore on your buttocks or the back of your thighs in the specific place where the germ happens to be situated on the toilet seat. Another way would be by doing a poor wiping jobâas you move a wad of toilet paper toward yourself, you accidentally brush by the toilet seat (collecting the germ) and then accidentally let the toilet paper touch your urethra. A third way? Perhaps you accidentally touch the toilet seat with your bare handsâ¦donât wash your hands properly with soap and warm water after you finish going to the bathroomâ¦and then later touch your nose or mouth and ingest the germ.
MRSA is a little more concerning, because research has shown that it can spread from simple skin-to-skin contact (as opposed to through a bodily opening), but Dr. Gerba said that even though it has been found on toilet seats in hospitals, there is no direct evidence proving that anyone has ever contracted MRSA by sitting on a toilet seat.
So, again, is it possible to get infected by a germ from putting your bare buns on a toilet seat? âTheoretically, yes, but realistically, no,â said Dr. Gerba.
Even if the risk for infectionÂ wereÂ high, how much protection would a toilet seat cover provide? I talked with Dr. Gerba about how most toilet seat covers are porous, one-ply pieces of tissue and how bits of feces and urine (and therefore germs) can easily bleed through them. He said that a toilet seat cover is likely to provide protection only if itâsÂ notporousâso the only ones likely to protect you are those nonporous plastic covers that rotate around the seat before a new person sits down (the bathrooms in Yankee Stadium in New York City, for example, have these, as well those in the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Louisiana).
WORRY ABOUT YOUR KITCHEN, NOT YOUR BATHROOM
Dr. Gerba left me with this food for thought: According to his research, far more dangerous germs exist on kitchen surfaces, such as sinks and counters, than on toilet seats, whether in public or at home.Â E. coliÂ bacteria, for example, are 200 times more prevalent on cutting boards than toilet seats, he said. âItâs actually safer to make a sandwich on a typical toilet seat than a typical cutting board,â he said.
Hmmâ¦no thanks! Iâll keep cooking in the kitchen!