Bathroom Germs and Bacteria: Disinfecting and Other Strategies

While bathrooms are not as populated with germs as kitchens, they still harbor their share of illness-causing bacteria lurking everywhere from the sink faucet to the towels.

But changing some habits and doing spring cleaning around the calendar can help make your bathroom about as sterile as an operating room.

Here are 10 tips to stop germs in the bathroom:


Color code hand and bath towels.

“This way everyone has their one color so family members don’t swap towels and viruses, ” says Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai in New York City, and the author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu. “If people are burrowing their faces in towels, they are doing more than drying off, they are depositing germs.” If you don’t want to color-code, use a waterproof magic marker on white towels, so every family member knows which one is theirs, he suggests.


Don’t share toothbrushes.

Make sure everyone has their own toothbrush by color-coding them, Schachter says. “Don’t let your toothbrush make contact with any other toothbrushes stored in the same holder either. Germs can be passed along that way,” he says. “A good rule of thumb is to keep them at least an inch apart.” Replace your toothbrush regularly after you’ve had any illness such as a cold or flu because germs can remain even after you’ve recovered. Here’s why: When you brush, you remove plaque and particles so toothbrushes can become contaminated with bacteria, blood, saliva, and oral debris. This contamination can be passed right back to you.


Always flush with the lid down.

According to Charles Gerba, PhD, a professor of microbiology at University of Arizona in Tucson, flushing the toilet with the lid up is not wise. “Polluted water vapor erupts out of the flushing toilet bowl and it can take several hours for these particles to finally settle — not to mention where,” he says. “If you have your toothbrush too close to the toilet, you are brushing your teeth with what’s in your toilet.”


Wipe down high-touch surfaces.

Use disinfectant spray or wipes on faucets, toilet flushers, cupboard handles, doorknobs, shower door handles, and any other area that you touch with your hands, Schachter says. “These sprays or wipes kill germs on contact.” The rhinoviruses that cause colds can survive up to three hours, so cleaning surfaces with disinfectant may help stop infections, according to the National Institutes of Health. “Don’t forget the toilet brush handle and plunger handle,” adds Paul Horowitz, MD, the medical director of Pediatric Clinics at Legacy Health System in Portland, Ore. “These are high-touch areas that we don’t think about, let alone clean.”

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Bathroom Germs You Really Can Catch

If you’ve seen a household cleanser ad lately, you’ve probably seen a bacteria, mold, or fungus, personified as an ugly little critter with sharp teeth, scaly skin, and a bad attitude. Those ads make it seem as if bathroom germs are mounting a daily, organized invasion of your tub, toilet, and shower. But what are the real bathroom germs lurking behind your sink, what can you catch from them, and how can you combat them?


Bathroom Germs: They’re Everywhere

The bad news is yes, there are probably a lot of germs in your bathroom. In fact, there are a lot of germs on your body.

“There are more germs than body cells on the human body, by a factor of 10,” says Philip M. Tierno, Jr., PhD, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at Tisch Hospital, New York University Medical Center. “So 90% of the total number of cells on your body are actually germ cells. We can’t live in a bubble and avoid germs.” But, says Tierno, most germs are perfectly harmless to us.

Not all of them, of course. So what harmful germ beasties might be prowling in your bathroom? There are several types:


  • Gastrointestinal viruses that cause stomach ailments in humans. These include the norovirus, which you may have heard of in connection with cruise ship outbreaks. These viruses aren’t just on cruise ships; they can be exploring your toilet seat as well. Gastrointestinal viruses “are easily transmitted and can remain on a solid surface for as much as a week,” says Tierno.


  • Enteric pathogens
    , which are organisms spread by contaminated foods (and can, of course, be carried in feces). These include things like E. coli, salmonella, shigella, and campylobacter. E. coli O157:H7 is particularly nasty, causing severe diarrhea with bloody stools. “It’s the bacteria that killed four children and caused a lot of illness at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants in California in 1993,” says Donna Duberg, MA, MS, assistant professor of clinical laboratory science at Saint Louis University.

  • Skin and respiratory organisms, such as staphylococcus aureus (“staph”) bacteria, including the antibiotic resistant MRSA strain, and Group A Strep, known as the “flesh-eating” bacteria.

  • Dermatophitic fungi, like athlete’s foot, transmitted by walking barefoot in the bathroom.

  • Other residual fungi, like those indigenous to showers — the “mold and mildew” of bathroom cleanser fame. “They don’t cause infection, but they can exacerbate asthma and allergies,” says Tierno.

But before you evacuate your bathroom and call Hazmat, here’s the good news: if you clean regularly and practice basic hygiene, there’s very little risk from the bathroom germs you’ll find there. “Only about 1%-2% of all germs are pathogenic — meaning they can make us sick,” says Tierno. “There’s a possibility you can catch something, but if you practice good personal, household, and food hygiene, you’re at pretty low risk.”


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Bathroom Germs: Keeping the Bathroom Clean

If you

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Common Bathroom Mistakes – Bathroom Germs and Bacteria

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By now, you’re probably on autopilot when it comes to your bathroom routine. But are your ingrained habits the cleanest ones? Take care to make sure you’re not making these icky missteps.

1. You don’t shut the toilet lid when you flush.
In a recent Scrubbing Bubbles survey, 60% of respondents indicated that they skip this important hygienic habit. And this is a big deal: If you leave the lid up when you flush, germy water particles (and, err, whatever else is in the toilet) can spray across the room — up to six feet away from the toilet. This fact was first discussed in a 1975 study completed by germ expert Dr. Charles Gerba, and has been proven time and again. He and his team found that bacteria can linger in the air long enough to settle in a filthy film all around the room — so make sure everyone in your household is onboard with a lid-down flushing protocol.

2. You store your toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.
You might think this a clever way to keep toilet bacteria from reaching your brush, but you could be trading one ill-advised move for another. Trapped in a cabinet or container, your brush may not be able to dry between uses, creating a welcome environment for bacteria. The American Dental Association recommends storing toothbrushes in an upright position, and not touching other brushes, to mitigate the risk of cross-contamination. And shut that toilet lid!

3. You leave your makeup and brushes out on the counter.
Anything you apply to your face should be kept out of the path of toilet germs, too. Plus, if you store your makeup in your bathroom, the room’s moisture can make it even more susceptible to bacteria growth. Keep beauty supplies out of grime’s way in drawers or boxes, and clean brushes and replace makeup as necessary.

4. You use your loofah for way too long.
Bacteria just loves breeding on these fluffy mesh shower staples, which are designed to hold-in soap and water to help you lather up. Toss them every three to four weeks.

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5. You let your towels dry on hooks.
Laundering your bath towels after every three uses is a good rule of thumb, but only if you hang them spread out to dry on a towel bar. If you hang them on hooks, moisture (and any excess soap that’s collected) can stay trapped between the folds, which could lead to mildew and bacteria growth.

6. You never run the fan.
If you haven’t already figured out, bathroom moisture can cause a host of yucky issues. So run the fan (or open a window) while you shower and for 15 to 20 minutes afterward.

7. You never clean the shower curtain.
The Scrubbing Bubbles survey also revealed that 42% of their respondents neglect this unassuming item. Feeling lazy about scrubbing residue away? Good news: You can often toss shower curtains in the washing machine. To keep mildew at bay

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