17 ways to have a healthier, safer bathroom

© Kohler Numi, the perfect toilet for your Case Study House living room

The bathroom is proportionately a teensy part of a house, but it's probably the most important room, the most dangerous room, the most toxic room, the worst designed room of the entire home. Almost everything about it is wrong. Ellen Lupton and J. Albert Miller write in The Bathroom, The Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste:

The small size of the standard bathroom reflects the ambivalence which has attended bodily functions and maintenance in American culture. The bathroom is at once the most and least important room in the house; it accounts for a large percentage of building costs and is used by all of a home's occupants, yet it is granted one of the smallest spaces. It is a private room yet is made very public by its shared status. It is physically clean yet culturally dirty

It is also a terrible, terrible design that we have been living with for over a hundred years. I wrote in the Guardian:

We mix up all our bodily functions in a machine designed by engineers on the basis of the plumbing system, not human needs. The result is a toxic output of contaminated water, questionable air quality and incredible waste. We just can’t afford to do it this way any more.

However there are a few things one can do to fix it, and to help fix the environment it is connected to via pipes and wires.

1. Get a bidet

toto toiletLloyd Alter/ toto toilet with washlet/CC BY 2.0
Science has shown that really, toilet paper just doesn't work very well. Alexander Kira wrote in the definitive Bathroom Book that “we are primarily concerned with the appearance of cleanliness… What we cannot see or directly experience or what others cannot readily see, we ignore.”

You can spend six grand on a Kohler Numi like the one in the Case Study house living room, $ 1200 on a Toto toilet seat like I did, or you can spend as little as $ 43 for an add on bidet sprayer like the Brondell. Find them all at Bidet.org

More in TreeHugger: Alexander Kira and Designing For People, Not Plumbing
Why I spent $1200 on a toilet seat and why you should too
No, you don't have to spend $1200 to get a bidet toilet

2. Squat

Unicorn poopSquatty Potty/Screen capture
Our bodies are not designed to sit while we poop; in fact, we should all be squatting.

Quite simply, because squatting is our body's optimal position for bowel movements. When sitting on a modern toilet as we do a chair, our colon is essentially 'kinked' (as designed, so we don't relieve ourselves accidentally), which can lead to difficulties with constipation, hemorrhoids, and other afflictions to our nether regions. In the squatting position, however, with the knees up higher, the puborectalis muscle (which 'kinks' the colon) can fully relax and open, which leads to full evacuation of the colon, much quicker and easier than sitting down.

When we sit and poop we are actually working against nature. But nobody (not even Asians who are used to them) buys squat toilets. The best we can do is get footstools like the Squatty Potty to keep things moving.

More in TreeHugger: Unicorn poop and kinked colons: Squatty Potty aims to help you get things moving

3. Close the toilet seat lid before you flush


Unfortunately our bathrooms were designed for the convenience of plumbers, not the health of the users, so many of us have the sink where we brush our teeth in the same room as the toilet. Because when you flush:

There have been found over 3.2 million microbes per square inch in the average toilet bowl. According to germ expert Chuck Gerba, PhD, a professor of environmental microbiology at University of Arizona the aerosolized toilet water is propelled as far as 6 feet, settling on your dental toothbrush inclusively.

Really, if you have the opportunity, always put the toilet in its own water closet and not in the same place as you wash and brush your teeth. But if you can't, at least always close the lid before you flush. And don't cover your toothbrush; it has to air out and dry.

More in TreeHugger: The History of the Bathroom Part 3: Putting Plumbing Before People
Why am I building such a weird bathroom?

4. Get a toilet tank tap kit for washing your hands

One should always wash their hands after using the toilet, preferably before handling the doorknobs. That's why the SinkPositive makes so much sense; it simply takes the water used to fill the tank and runs it through a faucet first so that you can wash your hands and then fill the tank with very slightly grey water. Every toilet should come with this as a standard feature, it is so logical.
More: Sinkpositive: Save Water, Wash Your Hands
You can buy toilets with it designed right in:
Caroma Makes A Toilet With Sink Look Elegant

5. Don’t use chemical toilet cleaners, get a brush

vipp brush© VIPP

In North America it is common to buy special chemical cleaners so that nobody has to touch the toilet. Some even dispense with every flush. All those chemicals stay in the water; they cannot be removed at the sewage treatment plants. They never disappear, they just get diluted.

In Europe, where toilets have been really low flush for a long time, I have noticed that there is a brush beside every toilet, even in hotels. They even sell fancy ones, like this VIPP, that cost two hundred bucks. It's not such a big deal to use and it pretty much lets you keep your toilet chemical free.

6. Get a dual flush toilet

brondell simple flush dual flushing toilet system photo

The old TreeHugger mantra "if it's yellow, let it mellow" always was a hard sell. But a dual flush toilet is a no-brainer, flushing our pee with the minimum amount of water necessary. Most new toilets come with it now as standard, but if you have an older one, you can retrofit. More: Dual-Flush Toilet Retrofit, With Adjustable Flush (Video)
Or go hardcore: Resist the urge to flush if you're serious about water conservation

7. Install grab bars and non-slip finish

The standard bathtub and shower combo is probably the worst designed product ever invented. It is a crappy uncomfortable tub for bathing (which very few people do anyway) and really, who ever thought putting shiny sloping metal or plastic, water and slippery soap together in one place? That's why on average one American dies every day from slipping in the shower. Really, nobody should take a shower in a tub, but since most of us have to, make sure that you have grab bars to hang on to while you step in, and have a non-slip surface to stand on, either a rubber mat or you can buy ugly and horrible non-slip strips.

In my own bathroom, which you can tour in the CBC video above, I separate the shower from the tub and the toilet; even the sink is separate, out in the hall. Every function has its own place, and when I shower, I am standing on non-slip tile instead of a slippery floor.

8. Get a new low flow shower head

Actually, it's the law, that is all you can even buy now. But many of them are awful, and don't really give you a very good shower. But others are not so bad at all, and some claim to be even better than a regular shower, like this Nebia that was up on Kickstarter last year and may well give new meaning to the word vaporware, since it a) delivers vapor and b) still has not been delivered. More: Atomizing showerhead claims 70% water savings and 'significantly superior' shower

9. Get a hand shower

telephone showerold style telephone shower/Promo image
I once jokingly asked Why Do Showers Point Down Instead of Up? making the point that the dirtiest bits of our bodies, that need showering the most, actually do not really get clean or properly rinsed in a regular shower. That's why every shower should either be a hand shower or have one as an alternative.

10. Don’t waste water while it warms up

Thermostatic shut off shower valveEvolve Technologies/Promo image

A surprising amount of hot water is lost through "behavioral waste" where people turn on the hot water tap and let it run for a while before they get in. There are a few devices like this one that turn off the water once it is flowing hot; you then just pull the cord and it starts again. Or you could get hardcore and actually gather the warming water in a bucket or jug and then use it instead of letting it go down the drain.

More: A better shower: Save water, energy, and money with a thermostatic shut-off valve

11. Take a Navy Shower (and other techniques to save water)

navy showerU-35, 1917/Public Domain

No, that is not exactly what we mean by a Navy Shower. Sami described it:

The basic idea is to get yourself wet all over, as soon as you turn the shower on, and then turn it off while you soap up before, finally, rinsing off. Apparently, a typical shower takes as much as 230 L (60 US gallons) of water, while taking a navy shower can use as little 11 L (3 US gallons); one person can save 56,000 L (15,000 US gallons) per year!

More: Navy Showers: Water Saving Goes Hardcore

Another version is what I called the Japanese Shower, taken before one gets in the tub.
To clean yourself before you got into the bath water, you did not use a conventional shower, but sit on a stool with a wooden bucket and ladle, soap and a sponge, and in the more modern showers, a hand shower that was is used when needed for rinsing and never left on to run into the drain.

More: Save Water; Shower Japanese Style
Or, Save Water, Stop Showering (Every Morning)
Or, 5 reasons why you should take cold showers

12. Lose the shampoos

freshly washed hair© K Martinko -- Hair that's been freshly washed with baking soda and vinegar and then air-dried

That's Katherine in the photo, who has given up on shampoo completely after a one-month experiment where she and TreeHugger Margaret both gave it up. She explains how she uses baking soda and cider vinegar and still looks and smells presentable. More: I haven't used shampoo for 18 months

13. If you can’t, make sure you use a healthy shampoo

My hair now, using Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap© Margaret Badore
Margaret, on the other hand, did not like it at all, and is back on the bottle. However she does not use conventional shampoos, many of which are full of chemicals that we should probably avoid. She writes “No poo” wasn’t for me, here’s what is

14. Don’t pump the soap, use bars instead

Bar soapritual/Public Domain

It's not just the packaging; a lot of people refill the liquid soap dispensers. In fact, "we use almost 7 times more liquid soap (2.3 grams) than bar soap (0.35 grams). That extra soap means more chemical feedstocks and more processing, and thus more energy and carbon emissions." More: The sad slippery slope of bar soap

15. Clean out the medicine and cosmetic cabinet

It is fascinating, how the smallest and actually the most poorly ventilated room in the house is full of the most toxic chemicals, many of which we put on our skin. The problem is, the approval system is broken in America:
The whole industry has a “innocent-till-proven-guilty” approach to ingredients. Unless a chemical used in beauty products is proven to cause harm to human health, it is classified as GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe.” This classification is upheld by the U.S. FDA and hardly has the best interests of consumers at heart.
There's a long list here, in 20 toxic ingredients to avoid when buying body care products and cosmetics

16. Get rid of the chemical cleaners

CLRCLR MSDS/Screen capture

That is from the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) of a common cleaner found under the sink in many a bathroom. Like so many cleaning products, it full of volatile organic compounds and other irritants. It's poison. So are many others; The Environmental Working Group notes that “Cleaning your home can come at a high price – cancer-causing chemicals in the air, an asthma attack from fumes or serious skin burns from an accidental spill.” Use vinegar instead. More: 5 Common Household Cleaners Hazardous to Your Health

17. Check the fan

bathroom fanbathroom exhaust fan needs work/via

Bathrooms used to all have windows, that was the in the codes. Then the engineers convinced the authorities that a fan could do the job, which made house and apartment design a lot easier; you no longer had to put the bathroom on the outside wall. The problem is, the fans often don't work very well, are undersized, noisy and clogged. And this in the room that needs ventilation the most, due to moisture, chemicals, smells, etc.

So check the fan and make sure it is not full of gunk, that there is good air flow and that it is working properly. Also consider putting it on a timer switch.

Lots more to read in TreeHugger; see related links below.

17 ways to have a healthier, safer bathroom
Some things are really easy.

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