When you gotta’ go, you gotta’ go—even if that means squatting in a heavily-used public restroom. During moments like these, some turn to toilet seat covers as a last-ditch effort to protect their behinds from legions of strangers’ germs. But is that thin toilet-seat-shaped sheet of paper enough to protect you from whatever lurks on the seat itself? The truth is, using that cover is a complete waste of time and paper.
Let’s start by looking at the toilet itself. Despite the way that public bathroom smells, the seat is generally cleaner than you might think: According to Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, your own cell phone carries 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats (yes, even public toilet seats), and yet you don’t think twice about pressing them against your face. Not that you should consider using a public restroom toilet seat as a pillow or anything, but it’s important to get a little perspective on how much of a risk it actually is.
Then there’s the point of contact: Your butt. More specifically, the skin on your butt which, like the rest of your skin, is designed as an excellent barrier against microorganisms. This means that even if disease-causing bacteria like E. coli were lingering on the toilet seat, it’s highly unlikely they’ll find a way to enter your body so long as you don’t have an open sore or cut on your butt cheek (if you do have an open sore on your butt cheek, we recommend visiting the doctor).
Most important of all, despite being placed there “for your protection,” that flimsy paper toilet seat cover is probably swarming with more bacteria than the toilet seat itself. A test of the aerosolization of diarrhea-causing bacteria after flushing, conducted by University of Leeds microbiology professor Mark Wilcox, concluded that an open-lid flush can fire tiny fecal particles up to 10 inches out of the bowl, after which they’ll float around the bathroom and land on anything in the vicinity—including the toilet seat cover hanging limply from its dispenser. Since toilets seats are cleaned more frequently than anything else in a public bathroom, you’re better off taking your chances with the seat than a cover that may well have borne the brunt of several days worth of poopers’ germs by the time you use it.
If you’re really concerned about contracting something from the public bathroom, your best defense against bacteria is simply washing your hands. Your butt, however, can take care of itself.