When you’ve been out at the mall, you’ve likely experienced a familiar feeling emerging from your bladder: you desperately need the bathroom. Yet when you finally find a restroom, the conditions are far from ideal, with urine splashed on the rim of the toilet. Luckily for you, though, a number of experts have now revealed the best way to avoid germs with these simple tricks.
For those of us who feel somewhat germaphobic, there are certain locations that we’re often desperate to avoid. Public toilets are likely near the top of that list, as the facilities are used countless times by numerous people. And disturbingly, a desire to avoid these places might not just be down to paranoia. In fact, some fears are quite valid.
And many of us would view one area of public restrooms in particular as especially germ-laden. Yes, it’s commonly believed that toilet flush handles, buttons or pull chains are the filthiest parts of public restrooms. Yet this might not be that surprising; we all use them after visiting the stalls, after all. Therefore, some of the germs that we have on our hands are transferred to the flush handles.
This is far from the only filthy area in restrooms, though. Yet regardless of our squeamishness, we might just have to use public facilities when nature calls anyway. But if you find yourself in this position, don’t fret: there’s something simple you can do that could help ease your concerns.
However, perhaps we shouldn’t take public restrooms for granted. As residents of the Western world, many of us have become accustomed to certain luxuries. From the mobile devices that a number of us use each day to the food we eat at home, such amenities aren’t enjoyed by everyone. And that extends to bathrooms and toilets too, as we’re about to find out.
Back in 2013 it’s believed that around 2.4 billion people around the world didn’t have access to a latrine. It was a truly staggering statistic at the time, with the United Nations describing the phenomenon as a global sanitation crisis. And as a result of this worrying development, the international organization then made a promise in 2015.
Yes, that year the U.N. revealed a plan of action known as “Sustainable Development Goals.” This agenda was made up of 17 aims that the organization wanted to reach by 2030. And one of these was to ensure that people from all walks of life would have a toilet at their disposal.
Achieving this goal might not be quite as simple as it initially appears, though. Certain cultures have attached a stigma of sorts upon toilet usage, you see, which still needs to be overcome. And to do that, it’s been suggested that the people within these countries require a little more education on the matter.
Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, who works at Massachusetts’ Brandeis University, made an interesting point about this during an interview with National Geographic in 2016. She said, “Understand that different cultures have different reasons for building toilets. Not everybody thinks like the Western world.” And if you’re wondering what Koloski-Ostrow meant by that, here’s a bit of context.
You see, some cultures don’t allow restrooms to be built inside houses. With that in mind, the U.N. certainly seems to have a lot of work to do to alter that line of thinking. Yet when it comes to the facilities themselves, an even bigger problem has developed in certain countries.
For instance, some of the outhouses that you’d find in countries including Guatemala, India and Afghanistan can be veritable germ traps. And due to the unclean state of these restrooms, people can be putting their hygiene at risk whenever they use them. In a number of instances, in fact, the facilities essentially amount to a hole in the ground.
With regard to the subject of hygiene in India specifically, the state of the country’s restrooms has long been discussed. In 2016, for instance, it was claimed that around 665 million residents didn’t have a latrine, resulting in some major issues. And those restrooms that do exist certainly aren’t always sparkling clean.
Yes, a number of outhouses in India are in fairly poor condition. And as a result of this, the individuals who use them could be exposing themselves to harmful bacteria and parasites. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to the spread of certain ailments among the population.
National Geographic also cites “open defecation” as a problem in India – no doubt due to the lack of proper facilities. But you could argue that the biggest toilet-related issue concerns the country’s female population. After all, in many instances, Indian ladies can’t use outhouses if they need the toilet after dark.
Instead, these women might travel to a nearby field to go to the toilet – thus attending to their needs completely out in the open. By doing this, though, they run the risk of being physically attacked. So, on top of the many hygienic issues, violence can be another problem that stems from the limited amount of toilets in India.
Residents of Guatemala have had their fair share of troubles down the years, too. As is the case in India, hygiene has also proven to be a major worry in Guatemala because of poor sanitary conditions. After all, some of the outhouses in the country aren’t exactly in the best state. And this poor upkeep has terrible consequences.
According to National Geographic, over half the people living in Guatemala have toilets at their disposal. But sadly, this simply isn’t enough to avoid tragedy: in particular, the lack of hygienic conditions in these facilities take their toll. Indeed, according to the Mayan Families charity, “diarrheal infections” have killed more kids under five than any other ailment there.
To help combat this worrying statistic, an initiative called the Water Sanitation and Hygiene Program (WASH) has been put in place. And this project has brought three goals to the table. These include more education on the subject of hygiene, a “hand-washing promotion” and an intent to improve overall sanitation.
Yet while it may be seen as downright inconsiderate to draw direct comparisons between the conditions that people face in other countries and Western restrooms, our public facilities do have some problems of their own. And as we suggested earlier, some people are quite reluctant to use the facilities for that very reason. However, for all the germaphobes out there, there might be a way around it.
According to a professor named Laura Bowater, the best way to steer clear of germs in a public toilet is by avoiding the seat. In a worst-case scenario, that area of the toilet could be covered in bacteria – that you’d of course subsequently pick up if you sat down. So with that in mind, Bowater shared a simple instruction.
Speaking to BuzzFeed in November 2016, Bowater explained, “When [the toilet seat] comes into contact with us, [the microbes] transfer from that surface to us. [So] hovering over a toilet while taking a leak is the most hygienic way to use the toilet.” Her thoughts didn’t quite end there, though.
Bowater added, “Research has shown that the majority of cultured bacteria found on [toilet seats] are actually the bacteria we have on our skin and not faecal bacteria. [It’s] not too surprising really.” Those opinions were shared by another expert as well, who soon offered their own views on the subject.
Mary-Louise McLaws plies her trade as a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. And she went on to back up Bowater’s claims during an interview with the news website Nine in 2018. You see, McLaws also suggested that the squatting technique would be good for people’s health in other ways.
“Squatting over the toilet is very good for you,” McLaws informed Nine. “It’s efficient because you certainly don’t spend hours straining without any production. It has been used for centuries in Asian countries.” Yet despite those interesting claims, someone else couldn’t help but disagree.
Yes, the subject of squatting came up once again when a urology specialist named Matthew Karlovsky sat down for a chat with the Shape website. And he believed that this technique could cause some worrying long-term health troubles for women if they did it too much.
Referred to as the “semi-squat,” Karlovsky used this term to describe how a woman might try to avoid touching the toilet. But when people adopt this stance, their muscles become tense as they hover over the seat – thereby causing problems for their pelvises. And after a while, this can then lead to more troubling issues going forward.
“You are training your muscles to not relax,” Karlovsky told Shape. “After many years, the bladder can become weaker.” And when that happens, the organ may stop emptying all of the urine in your system. As a result, there’s a good chance that you could develop a urinary tract infection.
However, the debate took another interesting turn when a user on BuzzFeed commented on the matter. This individual claimed to be a physician, and they were of the opinion that people don’t need to avoid toilet seats. The commentor made an intriguing point about the cleanliness of restroom stalls, too.
The BuzzFeed user wrote, “I’m a doctor with an additional masters in public health, and I sit down [on the toilet] every time. However, I do use a paper towel to open the bathroom door after I wash my hands. Touching that thing with your naked hands will give you far more diseases than sitting on the toilet seat.”
Some people might also employ a different trick in order to avoid coming into contact with any germs in the restroom. This technique involves placing pieces of toilet paper around the seat, thereby creating a makeshift barrier. But if you’ve been known to adopt this method from time to time, you may just want to rethink your strategy from here on out.
Raymond Martin – an employee of the British Toilet Association – went into a bit more detail about the pitfalls of this method with BuzzFeed in 2016. He explained, “Placing toilet paper on the seat actually increases the surface area for germs to multiply and therefore is considerably less hygienic.” But that’s not all.
Bowater also touched upon the positioning of the toilet roll itself in relation to the bowl. As it turns out, this might be a massive indicator of the paper’s cleanliness. She also spoke about the germs that someone else could’ve left behind if they had touched the roll.
Speaking to the website, Bowater elaborated on her thoughts about toilet rolls. “If it is an exposed roll that might have encountered hands that are gripping it while a strip is being ripped off – and those hands aren’t very clean – then there is a chance that they may have transferred germs to the roll.” From there, she focused her attention on the paper’s placement in the stalls.
Bowater added, “Also, an exposed roll sat near to a toilet may get splashed with faecal microbes during flushing. Especially if the lid isn’t closed. Flushing can create splashing opportunities that will enable small water droplets to be transferred through the air and land on toilet rolls and the toilet seat.”
Once again, McLaws echoed those thoughts during her conversation with Nine. The professor claimed, however, that poorly placed toilet roll might not be the only problem you’d have to contend with. After all, the paper rarely stays in one place on the toilet seat once you’ve sat down in the stall.
“Don’t forget that toilet paper isn’t perfect,” McLaws said. “Not all of them are in those captured containers, [so] you’ve had other people handling it, or it could have fallen on the floor and been put back up. We all have faecal germs around our thighs and around our rectum, and [the paper on the seat] moves a bit.”
And one additional technique related to this subject has been put under the spotlight as well. This particular tip is meant to help stop germs from spreading when the next person uses the stall after you in a public restroom. Quite simply, you’re advised to drop the toilet seat before you flush away your waste.
You see, when we flush in a restroom, a “toilet plume” emerges from the bowl. And this cloud can contain the germs from our urine and our faeces – with these unpleasant microbes then settling in the surrounding area. The bacteria can stay airborne too, meaning that someone else could breathe it in soon after.
“It’s not a big amount and may not even be visible to the human eye,” Dr. Amesh Adalja explained to BuzzFeed. “But it does happen when you flush the toilet because of the force. It does depend on the size and type of toilet you use, as some toilets produce plumes and others don’t.”
So, to conclude matters, Adalja believes that touching a toilet seat in a public restroom isn’t quite as bad as some fear. He added, “In the grand scheme of things, you have to realize that bacteria dominates this planet, and they’re everywhere. And the vast number of bacteria poses no problem to anybody. It’s only a small proportion of bacteria that causes a problem.”
However, if you don’t like using a public restroom, the latest toilet trend may just make you shiver in disgust. A trusty piece of toilet paper has been America’s bathroom go-to since the mid-19th century, but some individuals have swapped tissue for something that’s altogether stranger. Yes, an alternative known as family cloth is sweeping the nation. And when you learn what it’s made from, you’ll likely want it nowhere near your own bathroom.
Before family cloth came into fashion, though, it turns out that many did without a piece of tissue in the restroom. Even to this day, in fact, it’s believed that some 70 percent of the world’s population – that’s about 5.4 billion people – never use toilet paper. But what kinds of alternatives were out there to tempt people away from toilet tissue?
Well, the earliest information about how people wiped goes back to ancient Greek times. Those Greeks, it’s said, used stones or clay. The practicalities of that boggle the mind. Moving on swiftly, we come to the Romans, who cleaned themselves with sponges that were attached to the end of sticks. They even had special names for this implement: the xylospongium or the tersorium.
But the Romans didn’t enjoy exclusive use of their own xylospongium. Rather, they would use a communal one that would be provided at one of their public latrines. And to make wiping easier, each individual toilet had the normal opening at the top, but also a gap between the legs. The user could then insert the stick through this second hole as needed.
Between uses, the sponge on a stick would be stored in a pot of vinegar or salted water. But since these public latrines could accommodate between ten and 20 people at a time, the potential for the spread of disease was a constant danger. And the Romans, ingenious though they were, never did get round to inventing toilet paper.
In fact, the honor of being the first people to come up with paper designed for use in the toilet falls to the Chinese. Actually, it was the Chinese who invented paper full stop. Yes, according to tradition, a court eunuch called Cai Lun – who served the Emperor He of the Han Dynasty from 75 B.C. – created the first piece of parchment in 105 B.C.
One story has it that Cai Lun came up with the idea of how to make paper by observing wasps as they built their nest. However, archaeologists have challenged his claim to be the inventor of paper. They found a scrap of parchment dating from between 179 and 141 B.C. – a number of years earlier than 105 B.C.
And this ancient paper was discovered in Fangmatan – a settlement in China’s Gansu Province. This sheet wouldn’t have accompanied people into the restroom, though: instead, it was probably a map. In fact, many centuries would pass before the Chinese finally hit on the idea of using this marvelous invention to wipe their private parts. Yes, in the sixth century A.D., toilet paper began to take off.
The first written evidence for the use of toilet paper comes from 589 A.D. In the fifth volume of Joseph Needham’s monumental 1986 work Science and Civilization in China, Needham quotes a Chinese scholar called Yan Zhitui who lived from 531 to 591. “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes,” Yan Zhitui wrote.
So, we can deduce that if there was paper that Yan Zhitui would not consider using for wiping, then there must have been paper that was permissible to use in a bathroom context. And an Arabic traveler named Abu Zaid Hasan al Siraff backed up this assertion when he recorded the toilet habits of the Chinese. In fact, he recounted what he had witnessed in the early-10th century with some distaste.
As quoted by historian Ian Maxted in an essay first published in 1990 on The Ephemera Society’s website, al Siraff said, “[The Chinese] do not take care for cleanliness, and they do not wash themselves with water after paying a call of nature, but they only wipe themselves with paper.”
In the 14th century, it seems that the manufacture of toilet paper had become a fairly major Chinese industry. In one region alone – today’s Zhejiang Province – ten million packages of toilet paper were produced each year. And each of those packages contained between 1,000 and 10,000 sheets of paper – presumably enough to cater for the bathroom needs of many people.
A record from 1393 details toilet paper supplies to the Imperial Chinese court in the nation’s then-capital city of Nanjing. The courtiers there were apparently wiping their way through 720,000 sheets each year. And their sheets measured two feet by three feet, so presumably they were torn down into serviceable pieces before use.
In 1393 the Imperial Bureau of Supplies reported that Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor, and his family got through 15,000 sheets of toilet paper all on their own. And this wasn’t any old tissue: it was particularly soft and impregnated with perfume. Nothing, obviously, was too good for the imperial butts.
Of course, while the Chinese aristocracy may have been using paper in their bathrooms, we can be fairly sure that the peasantry – that’s to say most people – were not. Yes, just like all common people around the world during medieval times, they would have been using grass, sand, moss or whatever came to hand, so to speak.
And other materials used in medieval times to mop up after bodily functions apparently included snow, corn cobs, seashells and wood shavings. According to some accounts, rags were also used. This may be a distant echo from the past of the current phenomenon favored by some forward-thinking Americans.
However, in the Middle Ages, better-off people used lace, hemp or wool after using the toilet. And in the 16th century, the French writer François Rabelais wrote a passage in one of his satirical works, The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, that discussed the best materials for wiping. In the section, a giant named Gargantua considers many methods before reaching a conclusion as to the best of them.
Surprisingly, one material that Gargantua firmly rejects is paper, on the grounds that the results are poor. But the method of wiping that he finally plumps for is not perhaps entirely practical. He asserts that, of all possible means of cleaning, “there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs.”
The 18th century saw a boom in book publishing and this, for some at least, provided a ready source of paper that could be used in the restroom. For instance, Lord Chesterfield, in his 1747 volume Letters to His Son, described the use that an acquaintance had for a book of poetry by the Latin writer Roman Quintus Horatius Flaccus – better known as Horace.
According to Chesterfield, this acquaintance “tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina; thus was so much time fairly gained.” Cloacina was the Roman goddess of sewers, charged with overseeing Rome’s main drain: the Cloaca Maxima. And somewhat bizarrely, her domain also included the sexual relations of married couples.
Yet although toilet paper was readily embraced by the Chinese in the Middle Ages, there was an interval of several centuries before the item became commonplace in America. And the man we have to thank for the fact that it eventually caught on in the mid-19th century is Joseph C. Gayetty. We know little of his origins, though, other than that he was born early that century in Pennsylvania and later took up residence in New York City.
But we do have a surprisingly precise date for when Gayetty first sold his toilet paper: December 8, 1857, a Tuesday. His paper was made from Manila hemp impregnated with aloe, and each sheet had the watermark “J C Gayetty N Y.” It was advertised as a counter to hemorrhoids, although some medics, er, “pooh-poohed” this claim.
Doctors may have criticized Gayetty’s wares, but the man himself seems to have had no doubts about its efficacy. He proclaimed that his toilet paper was “The Greatest Necessity of the Age.” The Pennsylvania native also took a swipe at the widespread use of newspaper in the bathroom for anything other than reading material. Ink, he insisted, could be harmful to delicate parts of the body.
A 1859 advertisement for Gayetty’s paper showed that his business was based at 41 Ann Street in Lower Manhattan – a thoroughfare that you can still stroll down today. Sadly, you can no longer buy toilet paper at number 41. But when the Pennsylvania native’s store was open, the price of 1,000 sheets of “Gayetty’s medicated paper for the water closet” was one dollar.
Gayetty may have been first to market, but it was two brothers – Clarence and E. Irvin Scott – who brought toilet paper to the masses. They founded the Scott Paper company in Philadelphia in 1879. And their unique selling point was the fact that their paper came with perforations and was mounted on a roll instead of being sold as individual sheets.
A 1915 advertisement claimed that the paper was “as ‘soft as old linen,’ snowy white and very absorbent.” And with the price set at 10c for 1,000 sheets, it was much cheaper than Gayetty’s paper had been back in 1859. Scott Paper enjoyed success throughout the 20th century, and it was eventually purchased by Kimberley Clark for $7 billion in 1995.
So, it turns out that there is a surprisingly massive amount of money in toilet paper. In fact, Americans get through a bit more than seven billion rolls of the stuff every year. To put it into perspective, this works out as an average of 57 sheets per day – or 23.6 rolls per year – for every man, woman and child in the nation.
The manufacture of toilet paper has become a high-tech process, too. The trick is to make paper strong enough to fulfill its purpose, but weak enough to break down easily after it has been flushed. This is achieved by making toilet paper from short fibers, less extended than those used in writing paper, for example. And it has to be just right so that it won’t block sewer pipes.
But wiping with tissue might not be the most environmentally friendly choice. After all, according to one calculation, it takes the harvesting of about 384 trees to create enough toilet paper for one person to use in their lifetime. And lumberjacks chop down around 27,000 trees every day just to be made into toilet paper. So the question arises: how can this be sustainable?
Well, it’s startling figures like these that have given rise to a new phenomenon: family cloth. And this tissue alternative isn’t made from paper at all. Instead, it’s a simple piece of fabric that’s used to wipe in the bathroom in the place of disposable paper. The cloth should be washed after one use and can then be used again and again.
It’s environmental concerns that are driving some people away from the use of toilet paper. We’ve heard about the massive use of resources that goes into the supply of paper for the bathroom. Of course, as each sheet of paper is used only once, it could be difficult not to see this as wasteful. And Americans have been singled out as the worst offenders of all.
Yes, it’s reported that Americans each use an average of some 50 pounds of toilet paper each year. And this rate of use is 50 percent higher than that of Western Europe and Japan. There’s also the fact that people in the U.S. have demanded increasingly soft paper. Unfortunately, this means that recycled paper is no longer an option, as the manufacture of soft toilet paper requires pulp from newly harvested trees.
So the sad result of the insistence on soft toilet paper is that only 2 percent of that used in American bathrooms is made with recycled paper. Some people want to do something about that, hence the idea of using family cloth. And one woman has spoken publicly about her family’s use of cloth – albeit anonymously.
Speaking to BuzzFeed in 2018, the woman said, “My family is myself and my husband, my six-and-a-half-year-old daughter and my three-year-old son. To be honest, I was the main driving force behind this switch from toilet paper to family cloth. We’ve been using family cloth for under a year, even though the plan to do so had been years in the making for us.”
She added, “So far, it’s been wonderful, and I can’t imagine going back.” The woman then proffered a counter to one common criticism of family cloth, saying, “If you’re wondering, ‘Why would you want to reuse something that you wipe your genitals with?’, I’d answer this question with my own question: ‘Do you throw away your underpants after each use?’”
She also did a little explaining about the practicalities. “Let’s also set the record straight: individuals who use family cloth do not only have ‘a’ single piece of cloth. We have dozens of smallish strips of cloth. Each visit to the toilet gets its own cloth,” she said. After use, the fabric is then placed in a bin to be washed later.
However, even this devout user of family cloth had her limits. “At the moment, we don’t use the cloths for poop; they’re just for pee,” she conceded. She said that, in the future, she hoped to have a bidet fitted in her bathroom so that her family could clean themselves after defecating, and the family cloth could then be used simply for drying. But Beth Ricci, who blogs at Red & Honey, does go all the way.
Ricci described her restroom routine on her blog in February 2019. She wrote, “Walk into the bathroom and grab a wipe. Use dry or wet with water (your choice). (I like to use it dry for #1 and wet for #2. In either scenario, I feel immensely cleaner than when I use paper. The cloth wipe is just…sturdier and more substantial for those purposes.)”
But the very idea of using cloth instead of paper has got some into a terrible froth. For instance, many opponents of the fad contributed to the comments section below the BuzzFeed piece. “This is so disgusting, you’re sharing cloths that have been on other people’s parts,” a user called Oliverosa wrote. Meanwhile, a commenter named Morganm was brief and to the point, saying, “Ew. No.”
Conversely, others were more skeptical of family cloth’s benefits. “Wouldn’t the sheer amount of products used to sanitize these and then your washing machine defeat the purpose of being environmentally friendly?” commenter Catmirfitt wrote. And BuzzFeed user Pretzelday was downright hostile, saying, “Nope. Hipster blogger nonsense.” So, cloth or paper? It’s your butt and your choice!
But whether family cloth is a clever, sustainable invention or a kooky fad, there’s no denying that it’s creative. And it’s not the only useful home remedy around, either. Your own kitchen cupboard may even hold a natural alternative to antibiotics – and some people swear by it.