The Public Toilet Seat's Place on the 'Ick Scale'

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Public toilet seat via Shutterstock Public toilet seat via Shutterstock

It's safe to say that most people view using a public toilet as somewhat of a risky venture. Thinking that some unknown bacteria or nasty virus awaits them if they come into contact with the seat, many, depending on the available resources in the room, will either attempt to hover over the landing spot or line it with paper.

It's also a safe bet to add that nearly all users -- especially those choosing a bare-bottom ride -- will seek, in terms of contact, the absolute bare minimum while hoping for the best. But that approach doesn't provide much peace of mind.

However, what you might find surprising is that while tests have shown that the seat can transmit microbes from person to person (described below) -- and the seat is widely considered to be way up there on the "ick scale" -- there are several other bathroom surfaces which are far ickier. That said, let's start with the seats on public commodes, and review what we know.

Studies have shown that noroviruses can be transmitted from seats for up to two weeks, even with a good cleaning. The curse of many seafarers, norovirus symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. However, norovirus outbreaks occur much more frequently in other places, such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes.

Therefore, naturally, if you must come into contact with a toilet seat, your best defense is to wash your hands thoroughly, since they (not your rear end) are the primary vehicles for transmission (as you'll read below). But while toilet seats can potentially make you ill, similar dangers lurk on other more commonly used objects, both in the bathroom and in the house.

According to Allison Janse and Dr. Charles Gerba, the authors of "The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu," many common objects are much dirtier than public toilet seats. They say a sanitary surface is generally defined as containing no more than 1,000 bacteria per square inch (bsi). The surfaces of a public toilet seats they tested ranged from 50 to 1,200 bsi.

On the other hand, common objects that most people rarely suspect are much dirtier. For instance:

  • The average kitchen counter carries around 1,700 bsi
  • You'll find about 8,600 bsi on your door knob
  • The checkout screen at your local grocery story? Try 4,500 bsi
  • Most cell phones carry around 25,000 bsi
  • Finally, and ironically, your average sponge -- which is used to clean up -- carries more than 200,000 bsi

So what do all these objects have in common? It's our hands touching them.

"You're not going to get germs from your backside," said Ms. Janse, speaking with ABC News. "You're going to get them from your hands." So the advice is to wash them. And do it well.

What's more, the toilet seat isn't even the dirtiest object in a public bathroom. That honor goes to the floor.

In a bathroom floor test at ABC News, Janse and Gerba revealed that it carried more than two million bacteria per square inch. That's about 2,000 times dirtier than the aforementioned least-clean sanitary surface of 1,000 bsi. (Now, clearly, no one is going bare-bottomed on a public bathroom floor, but this stat simply provides an idea of relative cleanliness, and where a toilet seat falls on the "ick scale.")

Finally, if a proactive approach to public toilet seat use is your thing, studies suggest this solution: applying rubbing alcohol as a disinfectant. (Note: this cannot kill norovirus, but it can eliminate other microbes.) While using alcohol requires coming prepared, it's much more effective than taking your chances when you're forced to used the facilities.

So for sure, public toilet seats can pose challenges, but they are pretty easily surmountable. But cell phones and sponges? OMG. Watch out.