Public Restroom Safety Tips During COVID-19

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
  • Public Restroom Sign

    As people cautiously begin to travel again during the COVID-19 pandemic, they may find themselves needing to use public restroom facilities. If you’re taking a flight, finding a public bathroom may not be a problem. But if you’re taking a road trip, locating a public toilet might be more of a challenge. And once you find a bathroom, is it safe to use? Follow these guidelines for locating public restrooms and reducing your risk of coming in contact with germs.

  • 1
    Research your route in advance
    Woman planning trip

    Many states have only partially reopened (and some that began to reopen subsequently closed again), so if you’re doing a driving vacation you should research the local situation along your entire route. Find out if state rest stops, state parks or campsites have open or closed restrooms. Call ahead to convenience stores, truck stops, and fast food restaurants to discover if you can use their restrooms. Some places open to sell gas or serve food may not have reopened their bathrooms, so check in advance.

  • 2
    Use an app to locate public facilities
    midsection view of woman using smartphone and calculator

    Several smartphone apps are available for both Apple and Android products to help you locate publicly available restrooms. These apps may not update frequently to reflect temporary facility closures, so you’ll still need to perform your own research in advance. Some of the apps list not only public bathrooms maintained by city and state entities but also those in places like restaurants and cafes.

  • 3
    Avoid touching anything
    Toilet Seat Seen Through Open Door with Handle

    Public toilets are notoriously germy, regardless of how carefully the public restroom cleaning checklist posted on the door may be followed. When you enter a public bathroom, try to use your elbows or feet to push doors open. Grab a paper towel and use it to shield your hands from touching any surfaces. Use toilet seat covers, when available. Always wash your hands thoroughly and then hold a paper towel to open the door to exit when you’re finished.

  • 4
    Carry your own paper towels
    female hand touches a door handle through a paper towel

    Some public restrooms only offer hand dryers (not paper towels) to use after washing. Some studies have shown that hand dryers tend to blow bacteria around, so avoid using them if possible. Instead, wash as usual and then use your own paper towels to dry off. When exiting, always open the bathroom door with a paper towel to avoid touching the handle. Dispose of your used paper towels in your own trash bag or a nearby trash can, if the restroom doesn’t offer one.

  • 5
    Carry hand sanitizer
    adult applying hand sanitizer on daughter's hands

    Whether you’re flying or driving, you should pack plenty of hand sanitizer for your trip. The TSA now allows air travelers to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer in carryon luggage, so take advantage of that. (Hand sanitizer supply may be unpredictable at your destination.) You should apply hand sanitizer frequently (preferably after each time you touch a public surface), and be sure to rub it in thoroughly and apply it an inch or two above your wrist for best coverage. Whether or not you’re able to wash with soap in a public restroom, you still can apply hand sanitizer for peace-of-mind.

  • 6
    Carry disinfecting wipes
    closeup of woman's hand pulling out disinfectant wipe from container

    To truly disinfect a surface, most disinfecting products must remain wet on a surface for up to four minutes. That may not be feasible, in terms of disinfecting a toilet seat before you use it. But even swiping a seat or sink area or door handle and letting it stand for a few moments can reduce the number of germs on the surface. If you use disinfecting wipes on toilet seats, be sure to dry the surface before you sit. Never sit directly on the disinfecting product, because it could irritate your skin.

  • 7
    Practice social distancing
    woman wearing face mask waits to enter public bathroom

    If you must wait in a line to use a public toilet, be sure to leave at least six feet of space between yourself and the other people waiting in line. Ideally, try to use a public bathroom only if no one else is already inside. But if you must use a high-traffic restroom, at least maintain substantial physical distance between yourself and others. The quicker you can get in and out, the less exposure you’ll have to germs. And always wear a mask.

  • 8
    Prepare to take extreme measures
    toddler boy sitting on training potty outside

    If you’re driving cross-country, it’s entirely possible you will encounter a stretch of your route that simply does not have any public bathrooms available. This can be problematic for anyone, but especially for families with small children. Be prepared to answer the call of nature in nature by packing self-contained training potties, toilet paper, urinals (for men and women), a camping toilet, or any other necessary items that would be required to make a pitstop on the side of the road.

  • 9
    Bring your own toilet paper
    Stack of five toilet paper rolls

    The toilet paper shortage that occurred early in the pandemic affected commercial businesses too, which means some public restrooms may still be low on supplies. Couple that situation with high demand for public bathrooms, and you may find yourself staring at empty cardboard tubes in the stall. You should be prepared for this possibility by carrying your own toilet paper with you. If you have extra rolls, you could leave your roll for the next occupant.

It's wise to remain cautious even if you're fully vaccinated. After a year of the pandemic and 30 million U.S. COVID-19 cases, there is still a dangerously high level of new infections. There is also the threat of newer, more contagious and dangerous versions (variants) of the virus overtaking the older, more well-known strain.

Was this helpful?
  1. Public Restrooms: What You Need to Know About Using Them Safely During the Pandemic. CNN.
  2. If You Gotta Go, Are Public Restrooms Safe On A Road Trip?
  3. Huesca-Epitia LDC, Aslanzadeh J, et al. Deposition of Bacteria and Bacterial Spores by Bathroom Hot-Air Hand Dryers. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2018 Apr 2;84(8):e00044-18.
  4. Hand Sanitizers. Transportation Security Administration.
  5. How to Protect Yourself & Others. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  6. Guidance for Administrators in Parks and Recreational Facilities. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jul 20
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.