If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a germophobe. Unfortunately, on top of that and my digestive issues, I’m also in constant need of a bathroom. (I have a tiny bladder.) This means — to my never-ending dismay — I must regularly use public restrooms.
It hasn’t helped that NPR also confirmed my worst germ fears with their article “What Microbes Lurked in the Last Public Restroom You Used?”
Apparently, all of them. Some bacteria persist for months — months! — despite cleaning, and about 45 percent of that bacteria has a fecal origin. So really my paranoia isn’t so unreasonable after all.
So I decided to share my step-by-step guide to navigating the land mines that are public restrooms. Now you too can gain an increased appreciation for germ avoidance while decreasing your risk for contact with restroom nasties.
Step 1: Locate a suitable public restroom for use
While I have built-in radar for finding the nearest decent public restroom, you may not have honed yours yet. (It’s a bit like having “Spidey sense.”) But your best bets are hotels, bookstores, cafes, and restaurants.
Pro-tip: Walk in like you belong there, and stride purposefully to where the restroom is probably located (most likely in the back). If you can’t find it, ask politely but confidently.
If you get any pushback, like “Restrooms are for customers only,” buy the cheapest thing you can. Then never go back again.
Step 2: Enter the restroom like a proper person
Try not to touch any surfaces directly, starting with the door handle. Since 95 percent of people don’t wash their hands properly, traces of norovirus (which can cause diarrhea and vomiting), C. difficile (which can cause severe diarrhea), and hepatitis A are probably waiting for you there.
Pro-tip: Your clothes are your best friend. Use a scarf or your sleeve to shield your hand from touching things directly. Try to use your elbow, sleeve, or shoulder to open the door, or wait until someone exiting the restroom holds the door open for you.
Use your nondominant hand if you must touch a restroom door with your hand.
Step 3: Deal with odors
Try not to think about the odor molecules entering your nasal cavities. If there’s an air freshener on the premises, make use of it. If not, cover your nose with your sleeve, arm, or that light scarf you’re hopefully wearing.
Pro-tip: Breathe into the inside of your elbow, which I am assuming smells nicer than an unpleasant-smelling restroom.
Step 4: Enter a stall or get close to a urinal
Use the same techniques outlined in the second step while keeping in mind my number one rule: “Don’t touch anything with your bare hands.” Nothing is safe. If the person before you flushed, remember that flushing a toilet can cause bacteria-laden aerosols to spray into the air and settle everywhere. And that fecal bacteria can survive on surfaces for several hours.
Step 5: Assess the seat (if you’re sitting on a toilet)
Perform a visual inspection of the toilet seat before sitting down on it. Be on the lookout for any dampness or discoloration. Those could be traces of urine, feces, or blood. Don’t take any chances.
Pro-tip: Wad up some toilet paper, wipe the seat off (without anything touching your hands), and then put the paper seat cover down. If there are no seat covers, put fresh toilet paper down on the seat before sitting down.
Step 6: Flush
Ideally, the toilet automatically flushes, but if you need to manually flush after you go, use toilet paper to touch the handle and toss the toilet paper into the bowl as it’s starting to flush.
Pro-tip: If the situation is really bad — like a punk rock club in New York City in the 1970s or the “worst toilet in Scotland” from the movie “Trainspotting” — use your foot (with your shoe on) to push the handle down. All’s fair in love, war, and truly dire restroom situations.
Step 6a: Exit the stall if you’re using one
Grab fresh toilet paper to avoid touching the stall door when opening it.
Step 7: Wash your hands
This is the most important part! Make sure to follow proper handwashing protocol. Ideally, the restroom has automatic soap dispensers, automatic water faucets, and automatic paper towel dispensers. If not, use a paper towel to turn the faucets on and off, because someone could have touched the handle after contaminating their hands with traces of human fecal matter.
The CDC estimates that washing hands with soap and water could reduce 50 percent of deaths associated with diarrhea. If the restroom is out of soap (the horror!), use hand sanitizer.
Pro-tip: Carry hand sanitizer with you at all times. Soap and water are preferred, but hand sanitizer is a good backup plan.
Step 8: Dry your hands
How you dry your hands depends on whether the restroom has air dryers or paper towel dispensers. If you’re lucky, the air dryer or paper towel dispenser has an automatic function where you wave your hands to activate it. If you have to touch something to activate it, use your elbow, shoulder, or sleeve.
Pro-tip: As a last resort, wipe your wet hands on your clothes. At least they’re most definitely cleaner than wherever you are now.
Step 9: Exit the restroom
The ideal restroom has an automatic paper towel dispenser and a wastebasket situated near the door, so grab a paper towel, open the door using it, and drop the paper towel into the wastebasket on your way out the door. If not, try to exit the restroom without touching the door. If necessary, use your hand sanitizer after exiting the restroom.
And now that you have my guide …
Here are my wishes for you:
I hope all the public restrooms you encounter are clean and free of stains and odors.
I hope they have toilets that flush automatically, hands-free soap dispensers, functioning faucets, air dryers, and ideally placed paper towel dispensers.
I hope you can get in, do what you need to do, and get out without having to touch any surfaces.
Remember your ABC’s
- Cleaning (your hands)
Good luck out there.
Janine Annett is a New York–based writer who focuses on writing picture books, humor pieces, and personal essays. She writes about topics ranging from parenting to politics, from the serious to the silly.