We talked with an infectious diseases expert to answer the age-old question: to sit or not to sit?
Photo by dirtyboxface via Flickr
Whether you sit on them or squat over them or only let one cheek touch them and then lean on that cheek for support, public toilet seats have probably left you wondering if your butt is in harm's way, or if you're getting all worked up over nothing. While I sit fully down on the seat unless it's visibly gross, I can't help but ask: Is it a problem that my butt is rubbing up against someone else's butt?
Science's stance is pretty clear: Infectious agents cannot be transmitted via toilet seat sitting.
"In most public restroom surfaces, human-associated bacteria dominate," says Dr. Nilka Figueroa, an Infectious Diseases Chief Fellow at Harlem Hospital Center. "This bacteria are skin microbes that most people already have, so they pose almost no risk of infection."
This typed of bacteria—mostly "gut and skin microbes"— are all over toilet-adjacent items, so good luck trying to avoid them. (Plus, when you flush, they fly around.)
"These microbes settle on surfaces throughout the restroom, particularly within three feet of the toilet, including toilet paper dispensers and toilet seat covers," she says. A 2011 PLOS study found that the vast majority of bacteria found in bathrooms are skin-associated and pose little threat. While the vagina-associated Lactobacillaceae bacteria is found pretty widely in women's restrooms, when it comes to urine contamination, you're fine. You can carry antiseptic wipes if you feel so moved.
Studies consistently back up the no-big-dealness of sitting bare butt on a toilet seat. In 2016, a Filtrated study found that even gym equipment has more bacteria than toilet surfaces.
While the risk of disease or infection from seat to butt is minimal, though hard surfaces can hold some bacteria and viruses. Again, danger is minimal, unless you have an open cut or wound. If you're dealing with, say, a dive bar toilet covered in urine, you may want to squat because sitting on someone else's pee might upset you. Though many so-called "hoverers" are the reason that these seats are covered in pee in the first place.
"I fucking hate people who leave piss all over the seats," one Reddit user wrote on a 2013 thread dealing with this very issue. "Just sit down already! You are not going to catch anything from a toilet seat unless you're rubbing your genitals all over the seat ... in which case it seems like you might have some larger issues to worry about."
For those who are worried about contracting an STD from sitting on a toilet seat (I don't know where you are, but I know you're out there, and I'm not trying to embarrass you), there is no medical evidence that this has ever happened.
If you're really committed to avoiding the filthiest objects, throw your phone in the river: In addition to making you less present in your social encounters, cell phones carry ten times more bacteria than toilet seats. Just because they don't interact with your bare butt does not make them more sanitary. Even in the bathroom itself there are surfaces you should be more worried about than a toilet seat, like the door, the flush handle, and the faucet.
The safest illness-preventing measure you can take in the bathroom is washing your hands. Hand washing reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31 percent and reduces respiratory illnesses, like colds, in the general population by 16 to 21 percent.
"The most important thing to avoid the risk for illnesses from bacteria in public restrooms and elsewhere is proper hand washing," Figueroa confirms.
But if you do decide to continue squatting and hovering over the toilet seat—even though there's no evidence to prove this protects you—you might be strengthening your core, or, as a friend recently told me,"I squat because I like to pretend those few seconds are helping my butt."