Guess the least hygienic part of a public washroom…

It’s not the toilet seat. I was surprised too. We’ll get to that in moment… 

There’s a bit of an ‘unwritten rule’ that one should protect one’s rear-end from the frightful, devilishly disgusting bacteria that frolics on the surface of any public (or shared) toilet seat.

This article appears in-full in the current issue of our quarterly mag,  Accom Management Guide

Usually this would involve hovering above, using a toilet seat cover or, if neither of those options are possible, layering some sheets of loo roll as a protective shield. But here’s the truth, according to a small study carried out by BioCote, which tested for how much bacteria could be found on different surfaces of a public area washroom… Of fourteen commonplace items and surfaces this particular test found in a public area washroom, the toilet seat ranked ninth.


Are you, as the kids say, shook?

Well, technically the toilet seat ranked joint-eighth alongside the waste bin. The side wall came seventh, the floor came sixth, the toilet paper dispenser came fifth, handrails came fourth, third came the tap, second came the radiator and the highest count of bacteria was found in the sink.

All those folks using toilet paper as a protective layer between themselves and the toilet seat might not like those results; touching the paper dispenser might bring you into contact with more bacteria than the loo seat itself. But then again, that was just one study.

A different, academic study was reported in Scientific American a couple of years ago, carried out by  scientists affiliated with the University of Colorado. Here, thousands of bacteria were painstakingly identified in public bathrooms and grouped according to source.

This academic study, led by Gilberto Flores and his mentor Noah Fierer, established three groups of bacteria: gut, skin and shoe. The gut-group of bacteria were found predominantly on loo seats and flusher handles where ‘splashing’ may have occurred (try not to throw-up) or hand-transference was involved; skin-group bacteria was largely identified on doors and other places that people were likely to touch with their hands; and, the shoe-group of bacteria coated the floor and sometimes toilet flush handles. This last phenomena, the scientists in the study put down to people flushing the loo with their feet.

In an overview of these results from the University of Colorado’s ‘Microbial Biogeography of Public Restroom Surfaces’ study, the scientists stated: “Coupling these observations with those of the distribution of gut-associated bacteria, indicate that routine use of toilets results in the dispersal of urine- and faecal-associated bacteria throughout the restroom.”

That’s right, folks. There really is s*** everywhere.

“The prevalence of gut and skin-associated bacteria throughout the restrooms we surveyed is concerning since enteropathogens or pathogens commonly found on skin (e.g. Staphylococcus aureus) could readily be transmitted between individuals by the touching of restroom surfaces.”

What does this mean? Well, the scientists suggested a takeaway: “While these results are not unexpected, they do highlight the importance of hand-hygiene when using public restrooms since these surfaces could also be potential vehicles for the transmission of human pathogens.”


Why don’t people wash their hands properly?

Especially now that there are so many wonderful, easy-to-use solutions – even handsfree – that almost make the process fun. We know that it’s fruitless to trust that guests will do the right thing and scrub their sticky little digits until they smell fresh as a daisy and clean as a whistle, but accommodation providers should at least make it possible. Perhaps even appealing.

I think everyone must have found themselves stuck in a public bathroom at some point, making the heavy realisation that there’s no soap left in the dispenser. Tragic. (Thank God for handbag hand sanitiser.) Well, for accommodation properties with busy staff and overworked housekeeping, this is something that takes a bit of foresight to avoid. Having a regular, regulated, well-organised and avidly scheduled bathroom check and clean is the first key step.

Do it yourself or have it outsourced with a supplier.

There are actually a variety of soap/paper dispenser options to help lessen the frequency of refills. Many suppliers now organise to refill manual soap dispensers at perfectly timed intervals, so you’ll never have to worry about guests awkwardly letting you know the soap has run out. Same with toilet roll dispensers, and many other public washroom solutions. Another benefit of upgrading any grungy old dispenser is that the new ones tend to have an antibacterial coating. Which, when you consider how much bacteria is found in a sink, and how much of all the bacteria found in bathrooms spreads via hands, is pretty good to know.

There’s one key aspect of public area bathrooms that you definitely need to consider, and that’s gender-related bacteria. Sanitary bins and urinals are hideously gross. Let’s not sugar-coat it.

Automated, handsfree sanitary units are pretty handy solutions: if you ask any woman how they feel about staring down the barrel of an over-sized, overflowing sanitary bin, they’ll probably tell you the same thing. But automated or not, it’s imperative that cleaners (or an outsourced supplier) regularly clear out these units and keep the stalls fresh and clean, not to mention as odourless as possible. And for women’s sake, make sure there’s enough space in the stall to sit without having to touch or graze a bin/toilet roll holder/sink/sanitary unit.

Urinals get notoriously putrid if left to sour in squalor.

The best way to keep yours in ship-shape is to have them regularly maintained. There are models available now that are also vandal-proof and will self-clean at a customisable rate based on usage levels.

Hand and toilet sanitisers will also provide your guests with lots of peace-of-mind. If you have a limited budget and want to make a new installation without upgrading anything else, this might be something to consider. Air fresheners, too, cannot be underestimated as a way to alleviate ‘public bathroom fear’.

Feeling a bit queasy?

I’ll leave you with a point made by Scientific American’s Rob Dunn: public toilets save lives. As gross as those flushing handles and taps might be, the studies mentioned here didn’t record  discoveries of bacteria related to diseases like typhoid or dysentery. Those things were a common occurrence in the Western World before the mid-1800s but thanks to public bathrooms, general knowledge about good hygiene, and the toilet most especially, we don’t have quite as many nasties to worry about.

Rosie Clarke

Rosie Clarke is managing editor at Multimedia Publishing.

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