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It is teeming with thousands of different species of bacteria. In one spot, the unruly Lactobacillus acidophilus dominates; in another, Propionibacterium acnes is taking over.
No, it’s not a toilet seat – it’s your skin. Good old L. acidophilus line our digestive tract, and P. acnes can be found on our faces and arms. On average, bacteria account for about three pounds of our body weight. Fortunately, most of them are harmless. Some even help us.
Toilet seats and other surfaces host bacteria too, of course – and some of it can be pretty icky. So it’s no surprise that most of us, in an effort to protect our bodies from these germs, sheathe the seats in thin liners. But these flimsy sheets actually don’t do much good.
By the time you sit down on a public toilet seat – even if it was recently shared by someone else – the vast majority of harmful pathogens lingering on its surface will no longer be harmful. Plus, your skin is a pretty effective block against any meandering microbes (unless of course you have a cut or open wound, which could allow the bacteria to get in).
So where’d the idea of stocking bathrooms with flimsy, frustrating sheets come from?
In the 1920s, a husband and wife patented the first toilet seat liner after reasoning that toilet seats could spread dangerous infectious diseases.
Don’t worry – they can’t.
Viruses like HIV and herpes are fragile, meaning they don’t survive very well outside of a warm human body. And while a public toilet seat could host a common microbe like E. coli or even an infection-causing streptococcus, these bacteria can’t get you sick simply by coming into contact with your skin.
So if toilet seat covers are useless, what should you do instead?
In order for that E. coli or strep to successfully make its way into your system, you’d have to touch it with your hands and then touch your unwashed fingers to your mouth or eyes soon after that.
This is why you should always remember the rule you’ve probably heard since you were a kid: Wash your hands! The best way to do it, according to the World Health Organization, involves rubbing your hands palm-to-palm first, then with interlaced fingers, and finally by rubbing your fingertips (thumb included) against each palm. That’s it!