We've neatly laid out toilet paper, we've crouched until our thighs were sore, and we've decided to just cross our legs and hold out for another 30 minutes. The fear is powerful: How clean could a public bathroom really be? In reality, though, it's surprisingly unlikely that you'll actually "catch" something from a toilet seat — but that doesn't mean you should give up on staying clean.
To start, no, you're not going to catch a sexually-transmitted infection from a toilet seat. As the New York Times explains, there's no evidence that anyone has ever contracted gonorrhea, syphilis, or the like from a public restroom. That's because those diseases require a relatively large amount of bacteria to enter your system via sexual contact.
But only a very small amount of bacteria gets on the toilet seat, and they'll die quickly as soon as they hit that surface. Even the common cold has a hard time thriving in a bathroom. (Please keep cleaning yours, though.)
However, there are a few bacteria that have been shown to linger a little bit longer. Perhaps the most infamous of these is the "cruise ship bug" norovirus, which can spread via fecal matter that shoots into the air after you flush (technical term: "toilet plume"). Germs such as E. coli and C. difficile have been shown to spread in bathrooms via the same phenomenon.
Unfortunately, using a disposable toilet seat cover doesn't do much to stop the spread of germs, Kelly Reynolds, PhD, a public health researcher at the University of Arizona, tells USA Today. It turns out that germs are far smaller than the holes in those covers. Plus, they do nothing to protect you from the dreaded toilet plume left by others (let's all try flushing with the lid down, hm?).
That means the best way to prevent getting sick from something you may have picked up in a bathroom is to wash your damn hands. We're not talking about a quick squirt of soap and a rinse and you're out the door — try the CDC's step-by-step guide to the most effective hand-washing technique instead. But also practice good hand hygiene by not putting your fingers in your eyes, mouth, or nose without washing them before and after. And if you want to supplement all that with the occasional pump of hand sanitizer, go for it.