Have you hovered over a toilet seat in a public restroom, desperate not to touch it?
Chances are good that you have. Americans are so grossed out by the thought of touching things in public bathrooms that 64% of people who use them flush the toilet with their feet, according to a 2013 survey, and 60% use paper towels to open bathroom doors. Several studies over the years have revealed that scary-sounding bacteria and viruses cover the surfaces of bathrooms.
But there’s a lot you don’t know about the germs that lurk in the bathroom. Here are four surprising facts about the germs you encounter in restrooms at and away from home.
The germiest spot isn’t the toilet
It’s actually the toothbrush holder. In a study in 2011 on household germs, conducted by the global public health and safety organization NSF International, researchers tested 30 surfaces—six of which were in the bathroom—in 22 homes for the presence of bacteria, yeast and mold. While 27% of toilet seats contained mold and yeast, 64% of toothbrush holders did. Of the toothbrush holders, 27% had coliform (an indicator of potential fecal contamination) and 14% had staph.
“The toothbrush holder often has many of the factors germs need,” says Lisa Yakas, a microbiologist at NSF International. “It is dark, damp and not cleaned as frequently as it should be.”
But that doesn’t mean you should freak out about your germy bathroom, says Sean Gibbons, an assistant professor at the Institute for Systems Biology, a nonprofit research institution in Seattle. Coliform tests detect fecal contamination, but coliforms are not usually pathogenic.
Bathrooms are full of viruses
In a 2014 study in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Gibbons and his colleagues tested different parts of two women’s and men’s bathrooms on a college campus—the toilet seats, soap dispensers and the floor around the toilets—to understand how the microbial community changes and develops over time. They found Staphylococcus, human papillomavirus (HPV), herpesvirus and E. Coli, among other bugs, in the public bathrooms.
Using data from home bathrooms in the Home Microbiome Project and past research, Gibbons and his colleagues were able to see the same general trends. “Most of the bugs on these surfaces are coming from humans. Almost all humans are carriers of HPV and herpes,” Gibbons says. Only about 15% of what they found was fecal bacteria.
There are health risks associated with these germs, and some of the germs could be pathogenic—but chances are you won’t catch anything, as previous research has indicated. Most gut bacteria don’t survive when they leave the body, so the fecal bacteria that show up in places like bathrooms are dead, Gibbons explains. “There is minimal to zero risk,” he says. “[Most people] are healthy enough to prevent it from hurting it us.”