QUESTION

I hate to use public bathrooms because of all the germs. Besides covering the toilet seat and washing my hands, what should I do to protect myself?

ANSWER

While all bathrooms—even those in your home—can be a hotbed of viruses and bacteria, it’s true that public ones can be especially germy. To make matters worse, there are plenty of misconceptions about the risks. Here’s my advice…

Don’t worry so much about the toilet seat. Unless there’s noticeable liquid or a smear of something gross on the seat, it is less contaminated than most people fear. That’s because there’s usually a low germ count on smooth-surfaced toilet seats, and you have a protective skin barrier.

If you pile strips of toilet paper on the seat or use a paper seat cover, you may expose yourself to even more germs because these items are often located next to the toilet, where they can get splattered with fecal bacteria during flushing. If there’s a plastic or metal protector over the roll of toilet paper or seat cover, then you’re somewhat protected from those germs.

Flush with your shoe. The flush handle is often contaminated, so flush with your shoe instead of your hand. If balance is a problem for you, at least use toilet paper to press the handle, then drop it quickly into the bowl. Exit the stall as soon as you can to avoid germs that become airborne during the flush. But remember that no matter how contaminated your hands are it’s not a problem as long as you wash them with soap and water before touching your eyes, nose or mouth or a break in the skin (the conduits of entry into your body).

Use paper towels instead of touching anything directly once you’ve washed your hands. That includes the faucet handle, soap dispenser and door handle, all of which are often contaminated.

Avoid electric hand dryers. The high-powered jet-air hand dryers that are commonly found in public restrooms seem hygienic, but research shows that these machines can actually spread bacteria into the air and onto your hands.

In a study published in Journal of Hospital Infection, researchers at the University of Leeds found that there were 27 times more airborne germs in the area surrounding jet-air dryers than paper towel dispensers. Use paper towels to dry your hands.

Count to 30. Most people don’t wash long enough. With soap and warm water, vigorously rub your hands, including the tops and under your fingernails, for 30 seconds. Use the same paper towels you dry your hands with to open the door. (It’s a good idea to carry your own paper towel in case the bathroom doesn’t have any.) For extra protection, carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your pocket or bag for a “touch-up” when you leave.