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Why you shouldn't be freaked out by the bacteria in public bathrooms

Are there germs here you should really worry about? (Shutterstock)
Are there germs here you should really worry about? (Shutterstock)

Public bathrooms just seem like a cesspool of contagion. So many people have used them, and you don't know where those people have been or what they've been spreading around.

But really, there isn't much reason to be any more grossed out about a public bathroom than about your kitchen or phone or remote control.

Bacteria are in bathrooms, but they're also everywhere else

Research has shown staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria live on elevator buttons just like they do in bathrooms. (Shutterstock)

Sure, the germs you pick up in the bathroom can make you sick. But so can the bacteria on shopping carts, elevator buttons, restaurant menus, and light switches, which have all been proven to host a whole bunch of bacteria, just like public bathrooms.

Basically, there's no scientific reason to avoid public bathrooms over any other place. Yes, they have germs, but they're germs that surround you everywhere pretty much constantly.

"Your keyboard at your desk is loaded with bacteria. It doesn’t mean it’s dangerous," says Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious-disease specialist in New York.

There's a chance you can get sick from coming into contact with many of these bacteria, and that is concerning. But what makes it dangerous isn't where you pick it up; it's how that bacteria could stay on your hands and then — if you don't thoroughly wash your hands — maybe get onto your food or into your eyes.

These are the bacteria in your average public bathroom

Scientists have surveyed the bacterial residents of public bathrooms and found bugs like E. coli (which can cause kidney damage, urinary infections, or stomach problems), staphylococcus (which causes infections), and streptococcus (the culprit behind strep throat), among others.

The bugs in bathrooms come from a handful of sources:

The bacteria on bathroom surfaces come mainly from these six culprits (everything else is considered an "unknown source"). ("Microbial Biogeography of Public Restroom Surfaces")

In particular, skin bacteria run rampant in bathrooms because germs that usually live on the skin can survive for long periods of time on inanimate surfaces. Staph and strep bacteria can be transmitted from skin and are most commonly found in places your hands touch, while gut bacteria are (understandably) most dense on toilets. Floors have more bacteria from soil than other places do and are a sneaky spot from which germs spread. Research has found that some women's purses carried large amounts of bacteria after people had set them down on a public bathroom floor.

The darker the blue, the more bacteria found in that spot in the bathroom. The image on the left shows skin bacteria, and the one on the right points out hotspots for gut bacteria. ("Microbial Biogeography of Public Restroom Surfaces")

How to minimize your contact with bacteria

Washing your hands the right way can help prevent bathroom bugs from actually making you sick. (Shutterstock)

Some of the advice is common sense and known to work for sure: wash your hands. For real. (One recent study found that 10 percent of people don't and 33 percent forgo soap.)

When washing your hands, be thorough, says infectious diseases specialist Dr. Lennox Archibald of Malcolm Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Florida. The CDC recommends scrubbing for 20 seconds, making sure to get the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

However, when it's time to dry your hands, the research isn't quite in agreement.

The handles on paper towel dispensers are among the dirtier places in bathrooms, likely because they're touched frequently by people who haven't scrubbed well enough. That would indicate that you should head to the hand dryer (which Dr. Archibald recommends over paper towels).

But new research suggests hand dryers aren't great, either. A 2014 University of Leeds study found the amount of bacteria in the air near jet dryers (the really high-speed units) was 27 times higher than the amount of bacteria in the air when using paper towels. And the air bacteria counts near lower-speed hand dryers were five times higher. The bacteria were also found on many spots on people's bodies after they dried their hands, but mostly the germs from the air landed on their torsos. So it seems like the ideal way to dry off might be to use paper towels from a motion-detected dispenser.

If you have to touch a door handle on your way out, it might be worth it to open it with a paper towel, experts say, or you'll risk undoing the work you did washing up.

And then wash your hands before you eat. That's the most important thing, not where you got the bacteria, but whether you give it a good chance of making you sick.