By Amy Marturana Winderl, C.P.T.
Cleaning the bathroom is my absolute least favorite chore. I’d rather do pretty much anything other than get on my hands and knees and scrub the gunk out of shower tiles or swirl a brush around the toilet bowl while praying that no human waste particles splash out and hit me. But… the alternative of a grimy, slimy bathroom is far less appealing, so I’m left wondering: How can I do the bare minimum to keep things pristine and sanitary? I talked with a few microbiology experts to figure out how often I really need to clean my bathroom—and a cleaning pro to get some tips for making the job a little easier. Here’s how to get it all done while spending the least possible amount of time hunched over the john. Microfibre Fabric
Kelly Reynolds, PhD, MSPH, professor and director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center at the University of Arizona, recommends cleaning your bathroom at least weekly. More often than that might be overkill. “A lot of microbes grow slowly, especially when we’re talking about yeast and mold in the bathroom,” Dr. Reynolds says. “That can take days or weeks to grow.” Cleaning hard surfaces—toilet, counter and sink, bathtub and shower—weekly with a cleaner that’s labeled as a disinfectant will kill germs and keep the number of pathogens low.
The exception to the weekly-regimen rule: If someone in your household is sick with an infectious illness, like the stomach flu or COVID, they should try to clean the high-contact surfaces in the bathroom they use daily, Dr. Reynolds says, including the toilet, sink, shower knobs, counters, and doorknobs. “Try to not share the bathroom with them, but if you must, clean it daily.” Especially if the illness causes vomiting or diarrhea, it’s best to get in there and clean thoroughly before someone else uses the same space—and even better if the sick person is well enough to clean it themselves.
Known infectious illnesses aside, a less-than-sparkling bathroom isn’t likely to impact your health in any meaningful way, Paul Pottinger, MD, professor of medicine and co-director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at the University of Washington Medical Center, tells SELF. “It is unlikely that someone with a normal immune system would be at risk of catching a dangerous infection in the bathroom from one of their housemates via hard surfaces such as the floor or the toilet seat,” Dr. Pottinger says.
That’s because we’re already exposed to the microbes that our housemates have on them, and vice versa. That’s even truer when it comes to an intimate partner, Dr. Pottinger says. Even visible mold in the shower probably won’t make a person with a healthy immune system sick, he says.
One big exception? The fungus that causes athlete’s foot, Dr. Pottinger says, which can be extremely contagious. “The world is covered with germs, and there’s always fungus and mold around us, but it tends not to be a threat unless it settles in a damp area, and that’s where it can then grow,” he says. “You can absolutely catch this superficial fungal infection of [the] feet if it’s in the shower, and that’s why it’s so common.” And the spores can lurk in the bath and shower even if a surface looks clean to the naked eye, Dr. Pottinger notes.
Bathtubs can also grow what’s known as a biofilm, or a buildup of microorganisms that stick together to form a visible film—the infamous pink ring—around the tub or drain. As SELF has previously reported, foreign bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms can build up in this biofilm and cause skin infections like staph, or just really bad acne breakouts. The wet environment of the bathtub also creates the perfect environment for them to multiply. Since there has to be enough of an organism for it to cause a problem, this type of environment increases the chance that these bugs could cause a problem.
Use a commercial cleaner with disinfectant (look for one that explicitly says “disinfectant” on the label) that can effectively kill microbes like bacteria and viruses, and a stiff-bristled brush to physically break up the gunk, to remove biofilm from your tub.
“The chances of catching something through a hard surface in the bathroom is relatively small by comparison to a towel or razor blade,” Dr. Pottinger says. (If you’re sharing a razor blade with someone else, please stop.) Towels are known for harboring germs that can cause skin infection, and in some cases, gastrointestinal and respiratory infections can be spread this way, he adds. “Cleaning surfaces in the bathroom is a comparatively less important activity.”
Dr. Reynolds notes that research done by her team at the University of Arizona discovered that more than half of towels sampled contained MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a staph infection that is very difficult to treat with antibiotics. Based on these findings, towels should ideally only be used once and then laundered, and every person in a household should have their own hand towel to be laundered weekly, Dr. Reynolds recommends. (Other experts recommend washing bath towels once a week, and letting them dry out fully after use—whether that means throwing them in the dryer or hanging them somewhere outside the humid bathroom.)
The biggest concern is catching something from someone else; there’s less of a risk of your own microbes being a problem. But that risk isn’t zero, Dr. Reynolds says. “Our nasal passages are naturally colonized with things like staph, and they can transfer from the nose to a wound on the leg, which doesn’t have the same microbiome to fight off that infection that your nose has.” The best way to not transmit an infection from yourself to yourself is to simply wash your towels often.
If a towel smells like mildew, that means there’s something growing in the towel, Dr. Reynolds adds. “If you can see or smell something, then there are a lot of germs around.”
Lauren Bowen, cleaning expert and director of franchise operations at the cleaning company Two Maids & A Mop, recommends wearing a pair of clean, reusable rubber gloves when you deep-clean the bathroom to avoid direct skin contact with harsh chemicals.
Other good tools she recommends keeping in your cleaning kit:
Bowen also suggests keeping your bathroom floors dry. “A wet bathroom floor is hazardous for slips and falls, and it also creates makeshift glue for hair and dust,” she says. “Once that stuff is dried on, it’s stuck on your floor until you decide to mop it up.” Always use a bath mat, and spot-dry any wet areas after you get out of the bath or shower.
Again, if something ever looks or smells gross, that means it’s past due for a clean. While most people could probably use a grimy bathroom for a while without facing any health consequences, it’s just not worth the risk. Baths and showers are also just way more relaxing when you’re not staring at mold or pink slime lurking in the corner as you get clean. Even if, like me, scrubbing the bathroom feels like a punishment to you, it’s still better than feeling icked out as you clean off.
SELF does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, and you should not take any action before consulting with a healthcare professional.