How Safe Are Public Toilets?
by Deborah Kay

Would you rather hold it in than use a public rest room? You're not alone. 60% of Americans refuse to sit when they use a public toilet. Is this good, clean sense-or potty paranoia?

Rest Room Rituals

Robin - 34, stay-at-home mom
Toilet Tactic: "Instead of washing my hands, I use anti-bacterial hand sanitizer that I always carry in my purse."
Reality Check: Faucet handles in public rest rooms can hold up to 50,000 germs per square inch, but a thorough hand-washing with plain soap will remove up to 95% of bacteria and viruses-the same as using antibacterial soap or sanitizer. Avoid wet bar soap, though; stagnant water can harbor bacteria. (If faced with a soapy bar, rinse it under water for 30 seconds.)

Amy - 30, art director
Toilet Tactic: "I try not to touch anything. I kick open the stall door with my foot and flush with it, too."
Reality Check: Not touching anything is wise, since you can pick up cold, flu, and intestinal viruses from contaminated surfaces. But you can safely use your hands as long as you use a wad of toilet paper as a barrier against handles, lids and tampon bins (the germiest place in the bathroom-thanks to people's hands touching them, not menstrual blood).

Katrina - 32, corporate media-relations director 
Toilet Tactic: "I'm always totally freaked out that I might catch something from the seat, so I keep seat covers in my car." 
Reality Check: Even if you sit on a toilet seat right after someone with a sexually transmitted disease has, it's practically impossible to get infected, says Phillip Tierno, Ph.D., author of The Secret Life of Germs. Urine itself is sterile, so you're just as safe drying a wet seat with tissue as you are sitting on a paper liner.

Joy - 28, music consultant
Toilet Tactic: "I'll only use a stall that's completely free of remnants. Even a stray hair on the toilet seat makes me go to the next one."
Reality Check: Choose the first stall in the row. Studies show they get the least use, so they're the cleanest-and the most likely to have toilet paper. Otherwise, check the men's room. They've been shown to harbor fewer bacteria than women's rest rooms (there's less kiddie traffic). If it's empty, go for it.

How to Make a Clean Getaway

Use the right roll: Instead of using an unwrapped roll, use toilet paper from within the dispenser-it hasn't been exposed to as many germs.
Lower the seat lid before flushing: Toilets can spray fecal-infected water into the air if you leave the top up. No lid? "Flush and run," says Dr. Tierno.
Lather up: Scrub your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds-any less time and you're not getting rid of germs. Rinse, then repeat.
Towel off: Paper towels from an enclosed holder are best. Pass on air dryers-they blow the room's germy air right onto your hands.

To Squat or Not?

Who hasn't hovered over a seat to pee? Problem is since the position isn't really relaxing, your bladder may not empty completely. The residual urine can breed bacteria, leading to a urinary-tract infection. The habit can also cause incontinence later in life. Bottom line: squatting once or twice a week won't lead to problems, but more can.