Pee is So Much Crazier Than We Ever Realized
It contains more than 3,000 ingredients—that we know about.
Benjamin Rondel/Getty Images
Humans have spent a lot of time thinking about piss.
During the 17th century, for instance, German alchemist Hennig Brand thought that urine, because it's the general color of gold, might also have some gold in it. So he collected 1,500 gallons of urine—which he may have gotten from his wife and her friends, or possibly from the German Army, nobody is entirely sure—and then boiled it down to "the consistency of honey," according to his notes, hoping it would reveal itself as gold. No such luck.
He did, however, accidentally discover phosphorus in the process. So it turns out playing with other people's piss can sometimes lead to remarkable discoveries.
And yet pee rarely ever gets any glory—unless, of course, it's tied to rumors involving our Commander-in-Chief. When people think of complicated fluids that come out of our genitals, they usually assume semen is the most sophisticated in terms of composition. But semen has at most 200 proteins, and a few dozen other ingredients like calcium, citric acid, fructose, potassium, and vitamin B12. Piss, meanwhile, has over 3,000 ingredients that we know about. Comparing sperm to piss is like comparing orange juice to consommé.
"There are probably another 20,000 chemicals that have yet to be identified," says David Wishart, a biology professor at Canada's University of Alberta. "There's a lot we still don't understand." On the other hand, there's also plenty of things that we already do—and we've compiled most of it in one place. Let's start with the basics.
Fine, fine, what exactly is in urine?
A whole bunch of stuff. You might've heard that pee is 95 percent water and 5 percent other—like salt, hormones, nutrients, and creatine. But there's a lot more squeezed into that 5 percent than modern science originally believed.
In 2013, researchers at the University of Alberta released the results from a seven-year study of human piss, which found a staggering 3,079 compounds in urine.
"[It's] perhaps the most complex fluid in the body," says Wishart, who was the study's lead researcher. "In many cases we see chemicals in urine that we can't or don't see in any other part of the body."
Is all that extra stuff the things we're eating and drinking?
Some of it, sure. But it's not all residue from your diet. Urine is affected by the air you breathe, the environment you live in, the medicine you ingest, and the cosmetics you slather on your body. Anything that touches your mouth, nose, eyes, and ears is gonna end up in your piss eventually.
So urine is like snowflakes? No two drops are exactly the same?
In a sense, yes. But it's not the individual drops coming out of you that are so radically dissimilar. The chemical structure of your piss and the piss of the person in the next stall couldn't be more distinct.
Wishart prefers to compare urine to fingerprints, and he's not being facetious. "You can potentially identify a person from their urine," he says. "Your urine composition stays with you pretty much your whole life. It will change slightly depending on what you eat or drink, but it will still have the same underlying chemical composition that is unique to you."
That's mind-boggling if you think about it. You wouldn't walk into a public restroom and see a toilet filled with hot piss and know instantly, "Frank forgot to flush again." But theoretically, if you knew enough about piss, you could. Frank's piss could only ever be Frank's piss.
Does the distance and arc radius of a man's piss stream matter?
It only matters if he used to be able to piss from across the room and now he's not able to take a leak without hovering right over the bowl. A strong stream that goes soft could indicate a possible blockage of the urinary tract, says Rene Sotelo, a professor of clinical urology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. "This is most commonly associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia, which an increase in size of the prostate," she says.
But otherwise, the shooting power of his stream means nothing. The guy who can aim his piss with deadly accuracy, hitting a tree from the window of a speeding car without even paying attention, isn't healthier or more biologically advantaged than the person who pees on his feet even when he's right next to the urinal.
The only reason stream would make a difference, according to Courtenay Moore, a urologist at the Cleveland Clinic, is "if you are in a long distance peeing contest."
Um . . . Are long distance peeing contests . . . ?
Not officially, but Guinness has a record for the most piss ever expelled at once from a human bladder (38.7 pints), but it doesn't have a category for piss distance. Most pissing contests are homegrown, amateur events, and their results are far from authenticated. Like this guy.
Okay, but how long does it take the average person to piss?
Twenty-one seconds. The same amount of time it takes an elephant to piss. And a dog. We only know this because some Georgia Tech researchers decided to go to the Atlanta zoo and measure animals urinating.
They found that all animals over two pounds, regardless of their bladder capacity, urinate for roughly the same amount of time. They dubbed this the Law of Urination.
How does it work? "Larger animals have more urine to expel, but they also have wider and longer urethras than smaller animals," says Patricia Yang, a PhD candidate who led the research. That wider urethra means more piss can escape at a faster rate. "Also the urethra works as a siphon to accelerate the urine by gravity," Yang says. "Longer urethras give a faster urine stream."
So an elephant may have an oil tanker of a bladder, capable of holding 42 gallons at one time. But because of its accommodating urethra (1 meter long, 10 centimeters in diameter) and gravity, it can piss like a geyser, and finish in roughly the same time as a goat—or you.
Speaking of, if you're looking for a distance-pissing contest, you definitely don't want to go up against an elephant. Nobody's really measured an elephant's peeing distance in a competitive situation—get on it, science!—but with the immense amount of liquid coming out, at a staggering 1.5 gallons per second, an elephant's got the obvious advantage. But even if it's a humiliating defeat, at least you know the contest will only last 21 seconds.
Does urine have any medical properties? I think Madonna once claimed that she pees on her feet in the shower to cure athlete's foot.
Madonna had the right idea about at least one thing: Peeing in the shower. A few years ago, a group of students in the UK started a campaign to convince their classmates to pee in the shower every morning rather than use a toilet, which they claimed would save about 187 million gallons of water every year. Their "Go with the Flow" program got some international attention, but never really caught on.
As for the other thing—whether peeing on your feet can cure athlete's foot—the answer is no. Also, please stop taking hygiene advice from pop stars. The pee-on-your-feet-as-fungus-cure myth started because urine contains urea, an active ingredient in most anti-fungal creams. But those creams contain up to 40 percent urea, considerably more than what's in your urine, which has only about 4 percent.
"It would have to be a very, very large amount of urea for it to be considered useful to treat athlete's foot," Sotelo says. Not only would you need a high concentration of urea, but also sustained exposure. Meaning, you can't just tinkle on your feet during a shower and think you're good to go.
To get that 40 percent of urea, you'd need the urine of approximately 10 healthy people, capable of pissing at least 1.01 fluid ounces—which is average for a non-dehydrated person—and then you'd have to collect the urine. You could probably get it all in an 8 ounce Coca-Cola bottle and one of those decorative shot glasses you can get at highway rest stops. But the whole process is going to get messy and really uncomfortable for everybody involved.
Then you've got to stand in that piss. For a long time. We're talking a few hours at the very minimum. And then maybe it helps your athlete's foot. Although probably not. We weren't able to find a single urologist who thought that asking a bunch of dudes to piss into cola bottle so you could give yourself a urine foot bath while bingeing on old Downton Abbey episodes (we're speculating) was a better idea than spending $10 on some cream.
But what about jellyfish stings? Won't peeing on the wound ease the pain?
Just the opposite. It could actually increase pain "because the urine activates the cells that are left in the skin by the jellyfish," Sotelo says.
Urine isn't some magical elixir, but for some reason, human beings keep trying to convince ourselves that it is. Throughout our history, urine has been used to treat everything from burns, scorpion stings, baby rashes, and even "affections of the anus," according to ancient Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder. One can only imagine how that played out:
ROMAN PATIENT: I have, um... some issues with my anus.
ROMAN DOCTOR: Been messing around down there again?
ROMAN PATIENT: I've shown it some affection, yes.
ROMAN DOCTOR: No worries. I'll just pee on your bunghole and that should clear it right up.
Can you or should you ever drink urine?
Nope. Now granted, a lot of people have and do, claiming that chugging urine can cure hepatitis, whooping-cough, migraines, psoriasis, cancer, and countless other diseases and ailments. These urine advocates are very passionate about their pee. Try to question their life choices and they'll shout back things like, "Gandhi drank his own urine every day!"
Seriously—this is a real thing people believe, and it's egregiously untrue.
Gandhi never spoke or wrote about piss-drinking, nobody ever witnessed him downing a frothy glass of pee, and his own grandson, Arun Gandhi, occasionally writes letters to magazines like Newsweek, reminding journalists that piss-drinking "was not a therapy (my grandfather) believed in or advocated. The person you have in mind is the late Morarji Desai, a follower of Gandhi's and a onetime prime minister of India."
It's true that Desai drank his own urine every day, and he credited the habit to his outstanding health. He lived to a ripe old age of 99.
I'm confused. Does this mean I shouldn't drink urine or . . .
Don't drink your own piss. It's a terrible idea. Even the people who do drink their own piss don't make a convincing case for it.
Sarah Miles, the 75-year-old British actress who starred in movies like The Servant and Blowup, says she drinks her own piss twice a day and it's cured her allergies, but she also admits that piss "tastes like every lavatory you've ever smelt." A runny nose sounds better than that hell.
The only situation in which you might consider drinking urine is if you fall into a canyon and get pinned by a boulder for five days, and you don't have any other source of water. That's what happened to Aron Ralston, and he wrote a book about it called 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place. (The getting stuck part, not the urine drinking part. Although that's in there.)
But even then, it's probably still a bad idea. The US Army Survival Manual includes urine on its "DO NOT drink" list, right next to seawater and blood, and insists that urine shouldn't even be consumed if your survival depends on it.
Wishart calls urine "essentially a toxic soup. While it is sterile, it contains too many compounds that are both harmful and unpleasant to be much good. The body goes to extraordinary efforts to get rid of the compounds in urine—and it does so for a reason."
Think of it this way: If you're considering drinking urine, you now belong to the same intellectual group that includes people who get their nutrition advice from the Bible and take Proverbs 5:15 literally ("Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well"), and tinkle tweakers.
Tinkle tweakers are meth addicts without a lot of disposable income. So they collect their urine in jugs, so that when they run out of cash, they can just drink their piss and hopefully get a bonus high.
You're making that up.
Nope. Here's a photo of some meth piss jugs that a Reddit user shared a few years ago.
I know. It's not good. But if you're determined to try urine anyway, there is a less disgusting way to sample it. Just buy a ticket to the Roskilde Festival in Denmark this summer. June 24th to July 1st. You can see acts like Lorde and A Tribe Called Quest, and also drink the urine of people who came to the festival two years ago—it's used to brew beer.
Wait, back up. Did the people donating their piss realize it would be used to make beer?
They absolutely did. At the 2015 festival, concert-goers were encouraged to pee into metal troughs, as part of their "From Piss to Pilsner" recycling program. As signs promised, "Don't waste your piss. Farmers can turn it into beer again." Sure enough, the pee—around 6600 gallons of it—was used as fertilizer to grow the barley used in brewing beer.
When we contacted reps at Roskilde, they were initially unclear on "the whereabouts of the urine in question." But they eventually confirmed that the pee beer—which will be sold under the name Nørrebro Bryghus—will indeed be ready in time for summer.
If you're a regular at Roskilde, there's a chance you'll be able to pay for and then ingest a little of yourself from two years ago. Mmm, that's some tasty you. Who knew you were so hoppy?
What about animal urine? Is that safe to drink?
Cow urine is popular in India, where it costs almost as much as milk. But you don't have to make the trip overseas to pick some up. You can buy bona fide Indian cow's urine on Amazon, and it's cheaper than downloading Beyonce's Lemonade.
It's worth reading the fine print on their Amazon ads, if only for the entertainment. We're not sure if describing a urine drink as "hot and pungent" is really a selling point, but maybe it's a cultural thing.
Also, among the proposed benefits—which includes curing constipation, intestinal worms, and skin infections—the most dubious is that cow's urine makes you more intelligent. But maybe it does! Maybe you drink it, and suddenly you're like, "Good god, I'm never doing that again," which arguably indicates a quantifiable increase in your IQ.
Speaking of cows and their discharge, last summer researchers at Junagadh Agricultural University in India found gold in cow piss. They examined 400 samples and found 3 to 10 milligrams of gold per liter in every sample. Which is kind of ironic, if you think about it. Remember that guy Hennig Brand? The alchemist from the 17th century who collected all that urine and boiled it and sifted through it, looking for gold? Turns out, he had the right idea, but the wrong species.
That is a shame. So wait, are we talking about all cows?
No, the researchers specifically studied cows from the Gyr (or Gir) region of India. So it might not be time to start filling up empty jugs with American cow piss just yet.
But if you, say, dropped a few thousand dollars on Indian cow piss on Amazon, and then stored it in your basement as an "investment," it wouldn't be the craziest thing. It would be a crazy thing, sure. Because you did what now? But it wouldn't be the craziest.
Speaking of investments, if you're looking for another reason to buy urine in bulk—
That is in no way what I am looking for.
Yes, but if you were looking for a reason, here's one you may not have considered. Urine could potentially be the gasoline of tomorrow.
No, just regular ol' urine. Gerardine Botte, a professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Ohio University, has developed a process called "urea electrolysis," which involves extracting urea from urine and turning it into hydrogen, and then using it to power hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
"The inspiration for the process was the amount of energy that is spent today in treating water," Botte says. "The energy used in wastewater treatment plants to treat the urine—mostly converted into ammonia at that point—is high."
So why don't we have cars that run on piss yet?
That's a good question. It's not the "we're still working out the kinks" excuse that they always use to explain why we don't have fully autonomous sex robots yet. "Our technology is well developed now," Botte says. "We have been able to scale up and to demonstrate the technology."
Back in 2012, four teenage girls in Africa managed to make a prototype. If teenage girls can come up with a urine-powered generator, why have we yet to see a Honda Civic that runs on the stuff that makes Honda Civics pull over with frustrating regularity during family road trips?
Because car companies don't want to make them?
That seems to be the case. Or maybe it's a conspiracy with Big Oil. Somebody should really do some investigative journalism and find out what the holdup is with our piss cars.
But the whole piss car concept, it can't be as simple as it sounds, right? You have a car with a gas tank, and you fill it up by . . . pissing in the . . . c'mon!
That's what we were thinking too. We thought it'd be like that old SNL commercial for the Mercury Mistress, "the world's first car that you can actually have sex with." But instead of humping your car, you'd pee into it. Gross, sure, but think of the money you'd save! You'd see people driving big SUVs and you wouldn't think anymore, "They're destroying the planet." You'd think, "Wow. They must drink a lot of water. Like a loooooot of water."
But as you said, it can't be as simple as it sounds. "The amount of h2 generated per person is not sufficient to cover all the needs for fuel transportation," Botte explains. "You can collect the hydrogen by working with communities."
A hydrogen car requires about 5 kg of hydrogen to travel over 300 miles, and the average person only produces about 4 grams of hydrogen (via their urine) every day. You can't possibly generate enough hydrogen alone.
"A community of 125,000 people could produce enough hydrogen from urine to fill 100 vehicles per day," she says.
It would require waterless urinals, she says, and a community that all agrees, "Yep, let's do this. I want my piss to help power my neighbor's car."
That sounds great in theory, but just driving to the gas station sounds a lot easier.
It's a nice utopian idea but . . .
Let's forget we ever mentioned it. But you're still cool with collecting Indian cow pee just in case it has gold in it, right?
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