We’ve all been taught to wash our hands after using the restroom. But not everyone does
We all know what we’re supposed to do after using the toilet.
But survey after survey (including one in which scientists secretly camped out in bathrooms) have revealed a dirty truth: people don’t always wash their hands before they leave the bathroom. One study suggested that only 67% of people wash their hands after they go.
Don Schaffner, a professor of food science at Rutgers, has been studying hand washing for years and says the conventional wisdom shouldn’t be ignored.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re peeing or you’re pooping, you should wash your hands,” he told.
Germs can hang out in bathrooms for a long time. Each trip to the restroom is its own unique journey into germ land. So some occasions probably require more washing up than others.
“If you’ve got diarrhea all over your hands, it’s way more important that you wash your hands than if... you didn’t get any obvious poop on your fingers,” Schaffner said. “My gosh, if you’ve got poop on your hands and you have the time, certainly, get in there, lather up real good and do a real good job.”
Compared to feces, urine can be pretty clean when we’re not harboring any infections, though it’s not totally sterile.
“People who use urinals probably think they don’t need to wash their hands,” Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said. (In studies, women tend to be better about adhering to hand washing than men.)
But it’s best to wash your hands after every trip to the toilet because human feces carry pathogens like E. coli, Shigella, Streptococcus, hepatitis A and E, and more.
You can also easily catch norovirus by touching bathroom surfaces that have been contaminated with a sick person’s poo or vomit, then putting your hands into your mouth. The super-contagious illness is the most common food poisoning culprit, and causes diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain.
A wide variety of other microbes and bacteria can be found in bathrooms, too. Some strains of Staphylococcus, or staph, are “found on almost every hand,” as a team of hand washing researchers pointed out in a 2004 study. Public toilets can house many different drug-resistant strains of that bacteria. Even if your own hands are clean and poo-free, can you say the same for the last person who touched that toilet handle, used the sink, or opened the bathroom door? Hand washing is a life-saving routine.
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