This Bathroom Item Is Dirtier Than Your Toilet Seat, According to a Microbiologist
The dirtiest spot in your bathroom may surprise you. And spoiler: It's not your toilet.
Bathrooms are filthy—there’s just no way around it. They’re home to toilets, sinks and showers and tend to be one of the dirtiest places in the home, no matter how often they’re on your cleaning schedule. And because the toilet seat plays host to your derrière, it’s easy to label this as the germiest spot in the bathroom. But research is disproving that notion.
Overall, the hard surfaces—such as the toilet seat and floor—are scrubbed down often because they’re the first lines on your bathroom cleaning checklist. And many people focus on cleaning the toilet because nothing screams dirty like a line of biofilm in the toilet bowl. But what about other bathroom-specific items? Charles Gerba, PhD, a microbiology professor at the University of Arizona, says that it’s the fabrics in our bathroom that deserve the most attention. Yes, your bathmat is actually dirtier than your toilet seat, followed by towels, including those facecloths (which is why you need to wash your towels often). Here’s what you need to know.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more cleaning, humor, travel, tech and fun facts all week long.
Are bathmats really that dirty?
Darren Platts/Getty Images
“We’ve done a lot of research on the microbiology of homes and, more recently, the bathroom,” says Gerba. The bathmat is problematic for two reasons, he says. First, it gets wet when you’re getting out of the shower, and it stays wet and moist, often in a dark and damp room.
The second issue is that many people wear shoes in the bathroom, a huge contributing factor to the dirt, grime and bacteria found on bathmats. “Almost 90% of all shoes have fecal bacteria on them,” Gerba says. “You’re walking in dog poop all the time, and you don’t know it.”
Beyond tracking shoes throughout the house and across bathmats, Gerba also pointed out the potential of spray from the toilet to land on bathmats. The Ecological Fluid Dynamics Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder experimented to see how far water droplets were ejected into the air when flushing public restroom toilets. The airborne particles shoot out quickly, reaching 4.9 feet above the toilet within 8 seconds. The droplets were unpredictable and landed on the walls around the toilet, including behind it, and also on the ceiling. Which means that depending on the proximity, spray from a toilet can easily touch down on a plush bathmat.
But while some research might suggest closing the toilet seat cover at home before flushing, not everyone is in agreement with that solution. “When you close the lid, the spray then goes over the top of the toilet seat and hits the walls on the side because you’ve narrowed the opening, which makes the water shoot out at a higher speed,” Gerba says, adding that closing the lid also leads to the toilet seat and underside of the lid getting more contaminated.
How to prevent dirty bathmats
Whether or not you close the toilet seat, one thing is certain: Keeping your bathmat as dry as possible is important. One of the factors that make bathmats the dirtiest spot in the bathroom is that they sometimes stay damp for hours, depending on how humid your environment is, how many people are showering and how much water splashes on them. Drying off in the shower will keep your bathmat from getting soggy. You can also hang it to dry instead of leaving it on the floor, where it will stay wet longer.
Another tip: If you don’t remove your shoes when entering your house, at least take them off before going into the bathroom (and clean your floors often). That way, you’re not tracking outside germs onto a bathmat where they can quickly and easily multiply. “When you get out of the shower, it’s moist,” Gerba says. “Any time we have a fabric, it absorbs water, and things like fecal bacteria will survive longer there than on hard surfaces.”
How to wash your bathmat
The hard surfaces in bathrooms are satisfying to spray and wipe down, which Gerba recommends doing every few days. But what about bathmats? You should wash your bathmat at least once a week, and not just to keep it fresh and fluffy, but importantly, to remove bacteria.
The first step to washing bathmats is to check the care label and follow the instructions on the tag, including which temperature is best for the fabric. Most bathmats can be machine-washed, but be careful with rubber-backed bathmats, which shouldn’t be dried on high heat. In general, quick-drying fabrics, such as microfiber and chenille, can be good options because they dry fast and are easy to launder. Something you can easily wash twice per week is the healthiest option.
About the expert
- Charles Gerba, PhD, is a microbiology professor at The University of Arizona. He has authored more than 500 journal articles and books and has been featured on numerous television programs and in magazines. Gerba has an international reputation for his methodologies for pathogen detection in water and food, pathogen occurrence in households, and risk assessment.