Public restrooms – sometimes referred to as public bathrooms, toilets, washrooms, lavatories, or several other terms – are a necessary part of life unless you’re a person who never leaves your home.
We all have to go at some time, somewhere, when we’re away from home. If you’re in the woods, a public restroom might not be an option – since none are around. But most any other place you may be, sooner or later you need to visit a restroom.
Some barefooters try to avoid public restrooms
Over the years, in online discussions with other people who love going barefoot, I have often read something like, “I love going barefoot, but I draw the line at walking barefoot into public restrooms. They’re usually dirty, unsanitary, and disgusting.”
Such thinking is often just based on emotion, not logic. There appears to be only two basic reasons why some barefooters will not or prefer not to walk into a public restroom:
- They believe that possible urine, feces, or other body fluids on the floor are infectious, and are going to somehow penetrate their feet and get into their body and make them sick, or
- Their sensibilities cannot accept the thought of the bare soles of their feet making a direct contact with some other person’s urine, feces, or other body fluids that could be on the floor.
The latter reason is known as squeamishness.
‘Unsanitary’ does not mean unsafe to touch
I doubt any public restroom can ever be truly “sanitary” – nor can the very earth you walk on – or practically any other place you may be barefoot and touch with your feet. But “unsanitary” does not necessarily mean hazardous to your health, unless it relates to what or from what source you are eating. Merely touching unsanitary surfaces with bare skin – including the bottoms of your feet – is not going to do you any harm.
Ingesting or inhaling something from an unsanitary source is much more likely to make someone sick. Even if there were pathogens living in fluids that may be on the floor, they cannot penetrate normal, healthy skin.
Germs in public restrooms have a very low probability of being able to cause infections
A little online research will quickly reveal that public restrooms have no more germs or pathogens on their surfaces than any other place you may be, and usually even less than most other places.
For example, in LiveScience, the 2016 article “How Dirty Are Public Restrooms, Really?” states,
Public toilets might get a little grimy, but they’re very unlikely to pose any threat to your health. Most bacteria that could be any danger to people perish quickly on barren bathroom surfaces. And a functioning immune system (plus hand washing!) will stave off most of the rest.
Further, from the article: “ ‘The restroom isn’t that dangerous,’ said Jack Gilbert, PhD, a microbiologist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. ‘The organisms which can grow there have a very low probability of being able to cause an infection.’ ”
Dr. Gilbert is the co-author of a 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology entitled “Ecological Succession and Viability of Human-Associated Microbiota on Restroom Surfaces.” In the study, the researchers tracked the microbiomes of four university restrooms over many hours and days.
The article detailing the study is rather long and complex. A significant part of the study’s “Conclusions” is quoted here:
Compared to host-associated environments, restroom surfaces are dry, barren, and resource poor. As such, these surfaces probably do not support considerable microbial growth, as evidenced by low cell densities. Continual dispersal, dormancy, and cell death appear to be the dominant forces shaping community structure through time, with minor contributions from cell growth and competition. …
These same conclusions are echoed on the University of Chicago Medicine’s website, UChicagoMedicine, in the 2014 article “The microbes growing in a public restroom (and why that’s not as bad as it sounds).”
From the article,
The likelihood of some seriously nasty pathogen surviving in what Gilbert called this “horrendous alien desert” for microorganisms is extremely low, mostly because even the dangerous-sounding ones are with us all the time.
“Human beings are just laden with bacteria, some of which have the propensity to cause disease. But for the most part they’re all commensal organisms. They’re hanging around with us and we’re perfectly healthy and they aren’t causing us any danger or harm,” he said.
There are no more germs in public restrooms than exist everywhere else that humans may be
I think what this and other studies have clearly shown is that, sure, there are germs in public restrooms. But there are germs EVERYWHERE. You live with and come into contact with germs all the time. In general, there are no more germs in public restrooms than any other place you may walk barefoot, and often less, especially on the floor.
In popular social media, interesting opinions regarding being barefoot in public restrooms can be easily found – some based on ignorance (usually non-barefooters) with expressions of disgust, to some more reasoned opinions, usually based on practical experience.
For example, in one 2018 discussion on Reddit entitled “So what’s the verdict on public restrooms? Put on the shoes, or just walk in there barefoot?” one poster, “ThruTheSnowBarefoot,” wisely stated,
If you put on shoes, how does that really help? Eventually you take them off and touch them with your hands, or walk barefoot on the floor that the bottom of your shoes just touched. Besides, whatever is on the floor of a public restroom is floating around in the air too. Our world isn’t sterile.
Fearing being barefoot in public restrooms with an ‘open wound’ on your foot is unfounded
Even among experienced barefooters and others who understand that merely stepping on a potentially germ-laden floor will do you no harm, I often hear or read something like this: “Going barefoot into a public restroom is not a problem, unless you have an open wound on your foot.”
My immediate reaction when I read that is, “Who walks around with an open wound on their foot?” Someone with an open wound would be getting first aid immediately, not continuing to walk around in that condition.
The only scenario I could imagine for actually having an open wound when walking into a public restroom would be someone who, as they approach a restroom door, accidentally suddenly step down on something sharp – like a piece of broken glass sticking up or something similar – which cuts or punctures the skin causing bleeding. If they continue walking into the restroom while their foot is still bleeding, that’s having a open wound.
A situation like that though possible would be highly unlikely. But even if it happened, having immediate access to water, soap, paper towels, etc. that are available in a public restroom might be the very best opportunity to immediately treat the wound until better bandaging or other medical treatment is available.
What is an ‘open wound’ anyway?
An open wound is a break, tear, or cut into the skin that causes bleeding. The wound is no longer an open wound when the blood clots, causing the bleeding to stop or when it’s adequately covered with a bandage. Blood clots closing a wound are created by a type of blood cell called a platelet. The clot also contains a protein called fibrin, which forms a net to hold the clot in place, and the wound immediately begins to heal.
So, unless the wound occurs almost immediately as the person is walking barefoot into the restroom, it’s hardly likely to be an open wound. A recent cut or puncture that has begun healing is not an open wound, and is not likely to be any more problematic than non-injured skin would be.
The human immune system protects the body from infection, including ‘open wounds’
But even in the highly unlikely situation of having a true open and bleeding wound on your foot when you walk into a public restroom, what are your chances of getting an infection into that wound? Slightly more than with completely intact skin, but still extremely small.
Humans have an amazingly effective and efficient immune system. In Todar’s Online Textbook of Bacteriology, by Dr. Kenneth Todar, of the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Bacteriology, writes in the chapter “Immune Defense against Bacterial Pathogens: Innate Immunity,”
The structural integrity of the body surfaces, i.e., the skin and mucous membranes, forms an effective barrier to initial lodgment or penetration by microorganisms. The skin is a very effective barrier to bacterium, so that no bacterium by itself is known to be able to penetrate unbroken skin. Of course, a puncture, cut or scrape in the skin could introduce infectious bacteria. The mucous membranes are more vulnerable to penetration by infectious bacteria but still pose a formidable barrier of mucus and antimicrobial substances.
Stepping in wet urine on a public restroom floor is nothing to be concerned about
The most likely thing that might be on the floor of a public restroom is wet urine, especially in a men’s restroom. Though it’s an unpleasant thought – stepping barefoot in someone else’s urine on a floor – it is really not harmful at all to bare feet.
There was an interesting article in Prevention magazine in 2015 about coming into contact with someone else’s urine, entitled “What really happens if you sit on pee?”
From the article:
The pee itself won’t do anything to you, even if you were to get it on your hands and transfer it to your face (ewwww), says microbiologist Philip M. Tierno, Jr., a professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU School of Medicine. That’s because urine usually doesn’t carry harmful microbes.
Claims are often made that urine is not only sterile, but can actually have therapeutic properties. Indeed urea, the major organic component in human urine, is used in a myriad of useful products, including skin creams. For example, one popular product used by many barefooters to prevent sole cracks is Flexitol Heel Balm, which contains 25% urea.
Human urine may not actually be sterile after it leaves the bladder, but nevertheless, it is not harmful at all if it comes into contact with bare skin.
There is an interesting discussion about the sterility of urine in the online edition of The Guardian (U.K.) in its “Notes and Queries” section. Under “Body Beautiful,” the question was posed “I have heard that urine is sterile, how can this be? Surely urine, along with faeces, rids the body of toxins?”
Among the many scholarly answers posted, Peter A. Lund, DPhil (PhD), from the School of Biological Sciences, University of Birmingham, U.K., provided this:
URINE is sterile because it contains no living organisms, unless the person that produces is unlucky enough to have a urinary tract or bladder infection. There are less bacteria in urine than in tap water, for example. But drinking tap water is (generally) safe because it contains no toxic substances. Urine is actually pretty toxin free as well, but does contain plenty of waste products and some salts. Drinking it is a bad idea because it would upset the salt and nitrogen balance in the body, and the body would have to lose excessive water (as more urine), in redressing the balance. Bear this in mind if you ever find yourself adrift at sea in an open boat.
No one should be afraid to walk barefoot into a public restroom, even if it doesn’t look clean
There’s nothing that’s usually on a public restroom floor that is harmful to bare feet or to someone who happens to be barefoot. Of course, some people are squeamish and would rather not use a public restroom while barefoot, especially if it’s kind of filthy looking. But if you do, no harm will come to you, regardless of what you may or may not step on or in.
In fact, even if there were some theoretical potential chance of getting some infection from touching the floor of a restroom (there really isn’t, but this is just hypothetically speaking), there would be a much greater risk if wearing shoes.
Bare feet only touch the floor and nothing else. Barefooters as a rule don’t go around touching their feet with their hands, except when washing them. Shoes touch the floor and everything else that might be on the ground, yet are never washed.
Also, people touch their shoes with their bare hands as they take them off or put them back on, and then use their hands to touch everything else, including every other part of their own bodies, other people, food, eating utensils, etc. Bare feet don’t touch any of those things.
Going barefoot into hundreds of public restrooms over the years has never caused me a problem as a result
I’ve personally been in hundreds of public restrooms while barefoot: in stores, restaurants, doctor’s offices, hospitals, supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies, gas stations, highway rest areas, airports, airplanes, and many porta-potties at various outdoor venues. Most have been relatively clean looking, but some have been pretty filthy. No harm has ever come to me as a result, and I have no reason to believe that any ever will.
As a practical matter, when I’m in a public restroom, I try to avoid any wet spots if I can – not that I have any fear of harm from stepping in them, I just don’t particularly care for stepping barefoot in anything wet, including puddles, which some people apparently seem to enjoy. I avoid puddles anywhere if possible, whether on a hiking trail on in a restroom. But if I can’t avoid them, I know stepping in them will do me no harm. It’s just not a big deal.
Going barefoot into a public restroom is no different from going barefoot any other place
If you’re barefoot and need to go to a public restroom, the most practical and safest thing to do is just to walk in barefoot and not worry about it at all. Then wash your hands before leaving.
In that way your body has the best chance of doing its job of naturally fighting off any potential infections, as it always does continually as you live in this world.
Bare feet were made to touch the ground or whatever surface you’re walking on. That’s their job, their function. A floor, or the ground, is not required to be perfectly clean and sanitary for your feet to function properly and your body to remain healthy.