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How to Have Proper Public Bathroom Etiquette and Hygiene

Jennifer is a writer, editor, feminist, and Potterhead. She also loves her cat and studying cat behavior.

Did you know that public restroom floors hold 2 million bacteria per square inch? Dr. Charles Gerba, co-author of The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu, wrote in ABC News Health that this is about 200 times the number of bacteria on a sanitary surface.

The employees of the ABC Newsroom found out that their toilet seats were the cleanest areas and that the sinks the second cleanest. What was the dirtiest area, you may ask? That was the sanitary napkin disposal.

We can thank our janitorial staff for keeping the most-touched surfaces the most-clean, but we have to do our part as well.

I am not going to dictate how you handle your bathroom activities or cleanliness at home. However, I will implore you to think about it. What's your routine? Does it change, or is it precise each time you use the bathroom? Do some of your family's habits bother you? I bet they do!

This is the same for public spaces. The employees that take care of a public restroom think of three things:

  1. Safety
  2. Cleanliness
  3. Supplies

When you, as a consumer, step into a public restroom, you're only thinking of one thing: Bladder relief. Obviously, there's a disconnect. Let's think about the different ways you can help your and others' experiences of a shared private, business, or public restroom much better.

Sitting Is More Sanitary Than Squatting

Sitting on a toilet is more sanitary than squatting. Why? Because public seats are cleaned often! When you squat, you may be leaving a mess for the next person, whether you wipe up after yourself or not.

Whether you squat or sit, please wipe up any mess you may have left behind. By refusing to clean up your own mess, you are basically waiting for a brave person to do it for you—do you really want someone else touching your urine? And if they don't do it, you're making that seat out of order until the janitorial staff cleans it up.

Don't Leave Streaks or Racing Stripes

Imagine this: you're sitting blessedly alone in the public restroom, and you're completing number two. Someone walks in. Take a moment to flush. Don't let it sit and ferment. They may think about how you didn't get out of the stall after flushing, but they won't be gagging on the smell of your excrement. Win/win, anyone?

If you flush when you're done and notice leftover tracks, flush again. It's best not to leave anything that will be smelling something awful when you next return? By leaving a mess, you're either waiting for a brave person to flush again after you, or you're putting an out of order sign on that stall until the janitorial staff cleans up after you. Just flush as many times as needed!

Use Soap!

Soap is necessary.

If I am in the stall next to you, and I hear you get out and splash water on your hands for three seconds, I will assume you did not use soap. I will then put soap on a paper towel and wipe everything down before I use the sink.

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Read More From Pairedlife

There are so many myths about germs in bathrooms, and one of the largest is that you will get the most bacteria from your bottom. This is false. The most bacteria is found on your hands. Your hands reach your mouth. They reach your eyes. They reach your ears. They reach your genitals. They reach almost all of your skin.

If you go to a public restroom and develop a rash, it's not because you sat on something. It's because you wiped yourself with dirty hands. Just use soap! Scrub your hands and rinse. There are some germs that only come off with scrubbing; running water (even hot water) and soap over them is not enough. Take at least 30 seconds to scrub your hands.

"Wall-mounted medicated lotion soap dispenser found in a hospital in Daly City, California, in an ICU room"

"Wall-mounted medicated lotion soap dispenser found in a hospital in Daly City, California, in an ICU room"

Keep the Sanitary Napkin Disposal Clean

The sanitary napkin disposal has been reported to have the most germs. Think about it; these disposals usually have a little paper bag in them, and it is a waste receptacle. You don't see the janitorial staff hosing down the inside of garbage cans.

You're throwing something in there that is covered in multiple bodily fluids. Wash your hands after you do this. If it makes you feel better, wrap your hands in some toilet paper to throw your trash away.

Make sure that your used sanitary products are either rolled up or put back in the wrappings from your fresh one. Keep others clean by keeping what you're using clean, and do not dirty the receptacle. It is like a garbage can and is probably not hosed down or wiped.

How to Keep the Bathroom Clean

  1. Sit, don't hover.
  2. Clean up any mess you leave behind.
  3. Flush an extra time if need be.
  4. Use soap.
  5. Scrub.
  6. Take extra care with sanitary napkin disposals.

And remember: If I see you doing something shady, you're only making it so that nobody wants to use the bathroom. Let's be fair about this and be clean.

Be Safe in the Bathroom

You should always have safety in mind while in the bathroom if the constant presence of a caution or a wet sign isn't enough of a reminder. Unfortunately, there are many reasons for that sign: 540,000 of those reasons a year, to be exact (Green Hygiene).

What other types of safety hazards could there be in bathrooms/restrooms? Lots. But first, let's focus on the water.

  • Over 540,000 slip-and-fall injuries requiring hospitalization occur in the United States every year.
  • More than 460 workplace deaths reported each year are directly related to slip-and-falls on a wet floor.
  • Slip-and-falls kill more workers than all other workplace accidents combined.
  • The annual direct cost of disabling injuries on the job due to slip-and-fall related accidents is over $11 billion.
  • The average cost from a slip and fall is $22,800 per accident.

Try Not to Splash Water

According to The Green In Hygiene, a website dedicated to "educating others on common myths and misconceptions surrounding personal and public hygiene," slips and falls are the number two leading cause of personal injuries.

So how can we avoid this? Don't spill water onto the bathroom floor.

Now, if there is a leak, condensation, rain, or flooding of any kind, that can't be helped. Janitorial staff can clean up or maintenance can repair the problem. But if I step on huge puddles because you would rather shake out your hands than pull paper towels out of the dispenser, I am at risk of falling.

Most public restrooms are now vented. Promoting airflow helps keep moisture from building up in the bathroom, whether that is on the walls, on the pipes, or on the floor.

If you work or live in an outdated building, you might not be so lucky. Those water droplets that you shook off of your hand will take hours to dry without proper ventilation. Chances of other visitors adding to those water droplets increase tenfold in that time frame.

So how do we avoid spilling water on the floor? Clean up your mess if you make one. Shake your hands very carefully over the sink, or don't shake your hands at all. Take half an extra paper towel and wipe the floor with it if your shaking results in a mess. The rest will dry in minutes. Use your shoe if you need to.

Are Paper Towels Really Better Than Hand Dryers?

Previous studies have shown that paper towels decrease the spread of germs, while dryers, automatic or not, increase the spread of germs.

However, more recent studies show that those previous ones were not accredited and shared falsified statistics. According to Snopes, the real cause of germ spread is not washing your hands at all, or well enough. Though 97% of females and 92% of males say they wash, only 75% of females and 58% of males actually washed.

Likewise, the studies showed that while 50% of middle and high school students say they wash, only 33% of young females and only 8% of young males used soap while washing their hands (Snopes).

Safety Conclusion

  1. Use soap and actually wash your hands.
  2. Avoid shaking the water off your hands and onto the floor.
  3. Dry your hands, whether with air or with paper towels.
  4. Throw paper towels away, and pick them up if they've dropped on the floor.
  5. Request a janitor to clean up the floor or to place a caution or wet sign if need be.

And voila! That is a safe bathroom.

It's Important to Have Common Courtesy

We now know safety tips and hygienic tips, but what about just common courtesy? You would turn off the bathroom light after use at a friend's home, right? So why not in a public restroom where you're the last one out? You would make sure to turn the water off completely at your parents' home, right? Why do you forget this at a public restroom? Keep in mind that somebody is still paying bills. Somebody is still cleaning up after you. Be courteous.

Turn Off the Lights

Yes, we know you're a tax-payer. Would you prefer that money go to loads of paper products to clean up after your spills, floods, and messes? To sprays that also help clean up after you? To signs that are a must because someone slipped on your mess last year?

Or would you prefer that the money goes to nicer amenities with great smelling products and softer, thicker toilet paper? Turn off those lights. The lights may only be off for 45 seconds as you just miss the next colleague who needs to relieve their bladder, but they also might be off for 45 minutes because the lunch break is over. This adds up.

Be courteous: turn off the lights.

Turn off the lights when leaving the bathroom.

Turn off the lights when leaving the bathroom.

Be Mindful of the Ventilation

Already mentioned briefly, ventilation is essential to a public restroom. If you come across one that lacks ventilation, please keep in mind the previous paragraphs on drips and drops. Allowing water all over floors and counters can encourage bacteria to grow. This is especially true during warmer months. Warm temperatures and moisture make things grow.

As for odor, please keep in mind that the lack of ventilation and air flow allows odors to sit. This could mean freshly-mown grass on the bottoms of shoes, sprayed perfume/body spray, or whatever that is left sitting in the toilet.

For those with allergies, bringing in grass clippings or spraying perfume/body spray could mean increased sneezing or even allergic reactions. Be courteous about where you track your feet or spray your products.

Keep reading material clean and throw it away if it gets dirty.

Keep reading material clean and throw it away if it gets dirty.

Take Out What You Bring In

Taking reading material into a restroom has always confused me. I don't know what people think they don't have on their hands, but chances are they are wrong.

I can concede, however, that reading material is definitely one's choice. However, having to clean up after someone else's watermarked reading material is not ideal, to say the least. I've summarized a few points that help to be courteous with reading material:

  • a.) If you bring personal reading material, take it back out with you.
  • b.) If you're leaving clean magazines or other commercial items for others to read, please stack it somewhere other than the potentially wet sink and counter, and please do not put it in a stall.
  • c.) If you're reading something that someone else left in the bathroom, please be honest about how clean and dry you keep it, and throw it away if necessary. If it's clean, return it to a clean, dry spot.

Remember, sharing is not always caring when it comes to public restrooms.

Courtesy Conclusion

  1. Turn off lights if you're the last one to leave.
  2. Help keep floors and sinks/counters dry in poorly ventilated areas.
  3. Flush multiple times if needed.
  4. Only spray perfume or body spray if a place is well-ventilated.
  5. Don't leave any personal reading material.
  6. Place commercial reading material in a clean, dry spot.
  7. Throw away anything that may need to be trashed.

Respect Different Gender Identities

Every day, those who reject the boy/girl gender binary are harassed in public restrooms. It is not your business what gender someone identifies with, in the bathroom or out. They are there to relieve their bladders, not to stare at you. You would be the one making someone feel uncomfortable with your poor behavior or unsavory comments, not the other way around.

IWith that being said, please know that people with non-binary gender identities will also be sharing a public restroom with you. Treat them with respect and courtesy.

Think About Your Bathroom Use

We don't put much thought into using the public restroom. We use them in places around the world, and going to the bathroom becomes more of a thoughtless habit than anything. However, we do have an obligation to keep public restrooms safe and clean for everyone. Let's make sure to do so.


  1. Dear Science: How many germs are actually on a toilet seat — and should I care? (July 5, 2016). Washington Post.
  2. Slippery When Wet: The Hazards of Wet Floors. (n.d.). The Green in Hygiene.
  3. FACT CHECK: Do Hot Air Hand Dryers in Restrooms Spread Disease? (n.d.). Snopes.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Jennifer Kessner

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