We’re all guilty of doing some light reading in the bathroom — a few of us might even keep a basket of periodicals next to the toilet. And although we know it might not be the cleanest activity on the planet, how dirty can it be?
For the answer, we asked Phyllis Della-Latta, PhD, the director of the clinical microbiology service and the professor of clinical pathology in medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center.
While Della-Latta doesn’t recommend leaving a basket of reading material in the bathroom, she argues that people who practice good hygiene have little to worry about when it comes to reading in the loo.
“Let’s say you pick up a magazine and you’re reading it for a while — your hands are clean, if they were clean before you got on the toilet,” says Della-Latta. Once you put down the reading material, she says, “You’re not going to be transferring much bacteria to your hands if you wash your hands afterward.”
The bacteria that Della-Latta is referring to, in this instance, are the germs and pathogens that can accumulate due to something called “aerosolization.” Aerosolization is the process by which physical matter is converted into tiny airborne particles, and it occurs during showers, whirlpool baths or especially powerful toilet flushes. “People can breathe it in, or it can land on a piece of reading material,” says Della-Latta of aerosolized bacteria. She adds that these particles can also gather into biofilms, or thin layers of microorganisms that frequently accumulate on shower heads and the undersides of toilet lids.
However, Della-Latta warns that these pathogens are more harmful to people with weak or compromised or immune systems, or people with open sores. “For example, if you have cystic fibrosis, or you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or if you’re on steroids, or have HIV — anything that would compromise your body’s normal defense mechanism — then you have to be especially careful.”
But don’t run screaming from your bathroom just yet. According to the expert, “You can’t turn into Howard Hughes. You have to use your common sense.”
Della-Latta says that people with healthy immune systems who practice good hygiene and clean their bathrooms regularly are at a low risk for falling ill from bathroom bacteria. “And it’s not just the presence of one single bacteria that’s going to cause a problem — it’s the accumulation of a lot,” explains Della-Latta, adding that “most of the time, you really have to have a whopping dose of a pathogen in order to develop an infection.”
The bottom line? “If you’re a clean person, you should not be germaphobic,” she says. She advises washing regularly with soap and water, and if you want, finish with a hand sanitizer. "I always use Purell afterward, or something alcohol based,” she says.
So if you still plan on reading in your bathroom, take some advice from the expert and practice good hygiene. “Be clean, use common sense, and don’t be germaphobic," recommends Della-Latta. "And no reading in public restrooms, period.”