Friday, March 31, 2006

Washing Your Hands of It

Why should you wash your hands whenever you’ve just used the bathroom? (Don’t worry, I do. Explanation below. No need to stop shaking hands with me!)

There’s plenty of evidence that washing your hands on a regular basis has health benefits. But why do it after using the bathroom, specifically? Because you’ve been touching yourself in your private places? The very fact that those places are private is reason not to worry much about them. Your hands are out in the open all day, touching surfaces, pushing buttons, shaking other hands. Your private parts are usually covered with at least two layers of clothing, well shielded from outside world. If anything, the danger is not that your private parts will transmit germs to your hands, but the reverse: your hands will transmit germs to your private parts. This is especially true given that your private parts, unlike your hands, have mucous membranes. Wouldn’t it make more sense to wash your hands before using the bathroom?

I hear the response: no one wants to touch your hand after you’ve been touching your business. But why not? If they’re already shaking your hand, they’re already being exposed to something more likely to be contaminated than anything under your boxers. Of course, it’s possible you could get actual excreta on your hands during the process. If that happens, though, you generally notice and wash your hands anyway. This doesn’t explain the rule saying to wash your hands every time.

Maybe you’re likely to touch surfaces in the bathroom. Okay, but why are those surfaces any worse than any of the other surfaces you touch all day? Because people who’ve just touched their privates touch the bathroom surfaces as well? See above. Also, according to at least one study, phones and keyboards have more germs per square inch than toilet seats.

I think the real answer is just that the bathroom rule is easy to remember. It’s a good idea to wash your hands regularly, and the bathroom is one place you visit regularly that always has a sink. Whatever else you happen to do there is, I suspect, mostly irrelevant.


Jadagul said...

There's actually a very good answer, given in detail here. Basically, coliform bacteria—the ones that make excrement so unhealthy—live all over the groin area, any contact down there can get rather unpleasant germs on your hands.

Glen Whitman said...

Very interesting, albeit also a bit disturbing. Well, I guess this just goes to show how much I know about medicine. Good thing I maintained the hand-washing custom for other reasons.

dgm said...

relatedly, i a few years ago i finally figured out that i should wipe down the elliptical runner at the gym before i use it (for my own health) as well as after (as a courtesy to the next person). once i started doing that, i found that i wasn't contracting the flus and colds that others exercising during the same shift were getting and passing around to one another.

i guess we should be washing our hands both before and after using the bathroom. it doesn't have to be one or the other, eh?

Gil said...


I think your points are still valid.

It seems that the germs you're likely to come in contact with while urinating aren't likely to make you sick.

I think the best reason to wash after urinating is because it's a convenient time to reduce any accumulated germs from your hands; not just those you've just picked up.