Your kitchen sink probably has far more germs than a toilet seat. So does your cell phone. And your remote control.
But you probably shouldn’t worry about it.
“I think that’s a really stupid metric for comparison,” said David Coil, a microbiologist at the University of California Davis.
“Toilet seats are actually quite clean relative to most things.”
Yes, they have bacteria — usually fewer than 1,000 per square inch, according to microbiologist and author Jason Tetro. Although it sounds like a lot, there are likely hundreds of thousands per square inch in a sink, and millions on your shoes.
Generally, the human hand has about 1,000 bacteria per square inch, somewhat more than a toilet seat.
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There’s a reason for that, said Tetro: “The thing is that most of the time when you have a toilet seat that has germs on it, it came from somebody’s derriere.”
So, because it touched someone’s skin, the bacterial concentration likely resembles that of human skin, he said.
Bottom line: everything is covered in bacteria.
“Pretty much everything is germier than a toilet seat.”
But before you bleach everything you own, you should note: the number of bacteria on something isn’t a good measure of any kind of health risk.
“If people are concerned about health risks, it matters what is there, not how many,” Coil said.
Most bacteria are harmless, often even beneficial.
Only about 0.1 per cent of microbes that we see in our day-to-day lives are pathogenic — meaning they could potentially harm you, Tetro said. And for most healthy people, their immune systems will readily kill the infection.
There are many kinds of E. coli. Most are fine, are found everywhere, and are mostly not harmful. Tetro once accidentally drank some benign E. coli in the lab and was fine, he said.
But there is one that is dangerous, E. coli 0157:H7, and it is found mostly in food and bad water, not on surfaces.
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Some microbes are definitely harmful. If you see news stories that mention clostidium difficile, toxin-producing E. coli, or antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus aureus, then you should pay attention, said Tetro.
Otherwise, he suggests treating “toilet seat” headlines with a grain of salt.
“Is there a likelihood that there are going to be microbes? Yes. Secondly, is there a likelihood that there are going to be pathogens? Highly unlikely. But if it is likely, then what is the potential for those pathogens to affect me when I’m healthy? Probably not so great.”
This doesn’t mean you should totally ignore basic hygiene and housekeeping though. “I’m not saying go wallow in pig s**t,” Coil said.
You should still wash your hands after using the bathroom, clean the house, and pay special attention to food hygiene.
“These are real things. Lots of people get sick every year from salmonella and campylobacter from chicken.”
Basic food safety practices, like regularly cleaning your kitchen, cleaning cutting boards, avoiding cross-contamination and thawing meat at room temperature, are important. “These are reasonable and appropriate precautions because these are real risks.”
“But worrying about what’s lurking on your walls, there’s probably nothing lurking on your walls. You can lick your walls. I certainly wouldn’t spray them down with bleach,” he said.
“I would not lick a raw chicken. Definitely a no-no.”
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