So which is it: Do you hover or do you cover?
When using a public restroom, do you prefer to float over the seat, or cover it with a seat liner or even toilet paper? If you're one who likes to cover, you should know that a paper-thin liner probably isn't doing much to protect you from the wide world of germs. But if it's giving you peace of mind, it probably doesn't hurt.
Here's the good news: Research shows that those toilet seats in public restrooms probably aren't as dirty as you might think. In fact, it's likely they get cleaned more often than say, the sink in your home.
That's not to say that there aren't germs on the seat. Illness-causing germs such as fecal E. coli and streptococcus are as likely to be on the seat as they are to be on the door handle, sink faucet or toilet-paper dispenser. But according to Dr. Philip Tierno, a.k.a. Dr. Germ, the author of "The Secret Life of Germs," the skin on your backside actually does a really good of of protecting you from those germs.
"As long as the seat itself is dry and looks relatively clean, and as long as you don't have any cuts or wounds on your buttocks or the back of your legs, your skin offers all of the protection you need," says Tierno.
What about sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV or herpes? The bottom line is that the organisms that cause those diseases can't live for long outside of the human body, and certainly not on a cold, hard toilet seat. In order for you to contract those diseases, the organisms need to enter the body through a transmission of bodily fluids. So as long as you don't have a cut on your butt — or attempt to lick the toilet seat — you should be protected from those as well.
What's worse than the seat?
If you're worried about public restroom germs, you should worry more about the flush than the seat. That's when fecal matter — yours and that of others who have used the bowl since the last cleaning — gets sprayed into the air in aerosol form. Known as the toilet plume, it can spread germs as far as five to 10 feet from the toilet!
Tierno recommends opening the toilet stall door before you flush so you can immediately get out of the way of the spray. "Be prepared to flush and exit at the same time so that your exposure to the aerosolization is minimized," Tierno says.
Also don't put anything on the floor while you're in the toilet — that includes your purse, your phone and your kids. An ABC News investigation of the germiest spots in public bathrooms found that the floor has about 2 million bacteria per square inch. That same investigation found that of all of the spots for germs to linger, including door handles, the sanitary napkin disposal, soap dispensers and faucet handles, the toilet seat is actually cleanest of them all.
That revelation is not all that surprising when you realize that the real culprit for spreading germs is your hands. And since most people would rather chop off their hands than use them to touch a public toilet seat, those seats stay pretty pristine. That's not the case, however, for other bathroom fixtures.
So if you really want to avoid germs in the restroom, the best thing you can do is to wash your hands with hot water and soap. Tierno recommends singing the "Happy Birthday" song two times while scrubbing to be sure that you got your hands good and clean. Then use a paper towel to turn off the faucet, open the restroom door, and make your escape.
By the way, there is one instance in which those toilet seat liners would be worth it, and that's if they give you the peace of mind you need to actually sit down on the seat and do your business. Because hovering, while gymnastically impressive, just leaves more of a mess for the next person to deal with.