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Asking for a friend

Do I Really Need to Wash My Hands Every Time I Pee?

We can all afford to be more eco-conscious, but the bathroom is not the place to cut back.

Maggie Puniewska

Sean Murphy/Ulrich Baumgarten; Getty Images

This story appeared in the September issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

The Scenario
Your friend regularly waltzes out of the bathroom without paying the sink a visit. Sure, there are a billion germs floating around, but your friend says that since no one has actually died from skipping the scrubbing, why waste the precious water? Didn't California just have a drought? Shouldn't we be more frugal with H20?

The Concern
Before we address the water issue, you have good reason to grimace at your friend's personal hygiene practices, or lack thereof. Bathrooms are cesspools of germs: One study found 77,000 types of bacteria and viruses lurking in a public WC, and about 45 percent of the bacteria came from feces. Not dog poop or mouse poop—human poop.

But that doesn't seem to sway people to wash up; your friend is still in good company. A 2010 survey tracked more than 6,000 restroom-goers in five high-traffic locations, like Grand Central Station in New York, and found that about one in six people skipped washing their hands after using the loo. Other data is even less encouraging: A 2015 report found that only 66 percent of Americans lather up in the restroom, and 70 percent admitted to rinsing with just water, which actually does nothing to get rid of germs (more on that later).

Science has also found that women tend to be bigger sticklers about the practice. In a multi-year study, women washed their hands at least 88 percent of the time, if not more; but on average, one out of four men bypassed the sink. In truth, those numbers aren't terribly low, but the irony is, we love to tell people we're way better than that: As part of the same 2010 report, researchers called up people to ask about their post-bathroom hand-washing diligence and a whopping 96 percent said they always wash their hands. Because hand-washing is a socially desirable activity, researchers think that people give themselves more credit than they deserve.

The Worst That Could Happen
So, your friend is actually part of a whole community of hygiene rebels and it's true, his lax sanitation habits haven't killed him, but he could be one restroom visit away from malady. "Fecal matter can have salmonella in it, and urine could carry Zika, plus viruses that cause bronchitis, pneumonia, and even meningitis," says Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at Arizona State University. "So if you're touching surfaces like the toilet seat, handle, toilet paper dispenser, and the bathroom stall door, and then not washing your hands, you can pick something up really quickly."

But my poop and urine stay in the toilet, your friend protests. It's not like I'm putting my hands in it. Actually, you kind of are. Gerba's research has found that shit travels, literally. Flushing can shoot tiny water particles (loaded with whatever is in the toilet) up to three feet into the air, taking all those lovely bacteria with them.


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What Will Probably Happen
Not washing your hands is kind of like not wearing your seat belt, says Sally Bloomfield, a hand hygiene researcher and honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "You'll probably be fine, but it's possible you could acquire something nasty like a cold or norovirus that knocks you out for two weeks." While it's difficult to quantify the odds of that actually occurring, Bloomfield adds that washing your hands with with soap at key times, and not just after using the bathroom, could lower your risk of getting a gastrointestinal infection (which would include norovirus, as well as other GI infections) by 57 percent. You'd also cut your risk of getting a respiratory infection in half.

What to Tell Your Friend
Yes, we can all certainly afford to be more eco-conscious, but the bathroom is not the place to cut back. Microbes spread lighting fast, so by not washing, he'll be toting around stuff that can get himself or other people sick. "We've done studies where we had someone walk into their home with germs and, within four hours, those viruses were in 90 percent of the place," Gerba says. "Plus, many germs can survive at least a couple of hours, so if you don't catch something right away, you can pick it up later."

Furthermore, your friend can actually get some humanity brownie points by washing. "People think it's trivial, but hand-washing can be one of the first lines of defense against antibiotic resistance," Bloomfield says. "Think about it: If you're not passing along germs, and therefore infections, that means that a lot less people are getting sick and needing antibiotics." Boom. There's your conservation-concerned buddy's new raison d'être.

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