How to Keep Your Dorm Bathroom from Becoming a Biohazard

messy dorm bathroom
Two college students share this messy bathroom sink.See other pictures of the college experience .
© Ed Kashi/Corbis

Bathrooms shared by dozens of people are seldom bastions of sparkle. Some students take it in stride, as part of the dorm experience. Others barely notice. But a few are so disgusted they move off campus the first chance they get.

In general, the combined effect of multiple users, general anonymity and questionable cleaning schedules makes it tough to keep communal bathrooms clean. Fungi, bacteria and viruses can live on all sorts of surfaces, and they tend not to clean themselves off. They're typically icky but not dangerous; but every now and then, you can actually catch something from the stuff. It's not unheard of to pick up a gastrointestinal virus from a toilet seat, and it's easy to pick up the "athlete's foot" fungus from a bathroom floor [source: Shaw].


Bathrooms at home can get pretty dirty, too; but in the dorms, and especially in the traditional bathroom-per-floor setup, you can face an added variable: When you don't have the all the amenities of home at your fingertips, bathrooms can start to serve some unintended purposes. They may be dishwashing stations or smoking lounges, which might explain the ash in the shower or the rice clogging up the sink.

Plus, dorm life throws together all sorts of personalities. Some people crave clean, while others don't care a whit. Some might actually care but think someone else will deal with it (where's Mom?) Still, this is your bathroom, too -- the one you visit several times a day, every day, for about a year, and if you like things clean, or at least presentable you might be in for a rude awakening.

So, what to do? First, get some shower shoes, because athlete's foot ain't fun. Then, assess your own unique situation.


The Perils of Communal Bathrooms

Dorm configurations used to be pretty standard -- a couple dozen rooms per floor, two people in each room, and one or two bathrooms serving everyone. This bathroom setup gets dirty the quickest.

More modern configurations decrease the number of students per bathroom. Four or eight people may share two or four double rooms with its own bathroom in a suite arrangement.


There's actually a potential upside to the old-school setup: A cleaning staff is usually in there once a week, or even Monday through Friday [sources: Mahmoud, Gerber]. (If the dorm bathroom is never cleaned by anyone, you need to talk to your resident adviser) In a double or a suite, the cleaning might be left to you and your roommates. And if an eight-person bathroom goes without cleaning, over time it will get as filthy as the one down the hall.

Even with a cleaning staff, though, weekends are likely uncovered, and by Sunday night you can find some unpleasant things in the bathroom. There's the usual stuff: musty odor, urine on toilet seats and feces clinging to bowls, mirrors spattered with toothpaste, hair blocking shower drains. In bathrooms without a window or a venting fan, you can also find mildew in as little as 12 to 24 hours after the last cleaning [source: Enviroclean].

And because this is a dorm bathroom, there may also be food in sinks from washing dishes, cigarette butts on window sills, and vomit pretty much anywhere after some Saturday (or Tuesday) night debauchery.

It ain't pretty. But you still need to brush your teeth.

It's an easier problem to deal with in a suite or double. With four or eight people sharing a bathroom, a simple schedule may be all you need. Someone who balks at cleaning the toilet might be more amenable knowing it's only going to be his or her turn a couple times a month. Plus, with fewer people using the bathroom, messes are less anonymous. Shame can be a great motivator. If all else fails, maybe everyone can pool their money to get a housekeeper.

In a configuration where just one or two bathrooms serve an entire floor, you're looking at a more-uphill battle. But it's winnable.


The Quest for Something Clean(er)

If you're looking to motivate without being hated, the trick is to be friendly about it. Post a flyer on your dorm message board asking your floor mates to meet for a talk about the bathroom. If you can add "Free Pizza!" somewhere in there, you'll likely get more attendees, so see if your RA can hook up some pizza delivery.

Take the lead by doing some cleaning yourself before the meeting (otherwise you're giving orders, not really asking for help), and put some pre-meeting thought into making the job as small as possible. If you mention the word "grout" you might trigger a walkout.


Identify the essentials and the easiest solutions for keeping the bathroom clean. The biggest hazards are:

  • Sinks support germs, and they're where dirty hands go to get clean. They should be disinfected regularly, especially the water knobs, which everybody touches. A quick wipe-down with a disinfecting cloth is fine. To simplify and remind, leave dispensers of wipes right next to the sinks.
  • Toilets: The CDC estimates a toilet bowl is covered by 3.2 million feces-dwelling microbes per square inch [source: Shaw]. They can form a film in just a few hours, which makes them harder to wash away. To simplify and remind: Leave a toilet-bowl cleaner and a brush next to each toilet. (To help prevent: Drop a cleaning tablet in each tank.)
  • Showers: Hair in the drain is gross, but you can address that by covering your hand with paper towel and transferring it to the trash can. Moisture is the bigger problem. Mold can be a serious health hazard in people with allergies or asthma, and even those without health conditions can experience respiratory symptoms like wheezing or coughing [source: CDC]. Applying a mold-preventing shower spray after each shower can help out between bleach or baking-soda scrub. To simplify and remind: Leave a bottle of the spray in every shower. (To help prevent, keep windows open or fans running whenever possible.)

Some supplementary ways to encourage cleaning include leaving informative notes around the bathroom – for instance, a Post-It by the toilet saying, "3.2 million microbes per square inch!" – and providing multiple options to achieve a cleaner space.

And failing all of that, know you tried, and suck it up. It's part of the college experience.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How to Keep Your Dorm Bathroom from Becoming a Biohazard

Much of the dorm-specific information I came across was anecdotal – students explaining their own bathroom situations, what they've seen, why it bothers them. It's worth noting that some students do not find their dorm bathrooms to be disgusting. It surely varies by group makeup. If you're reading this in an attempt to be proactive, great – but wait until you see what your dorm bathroom is like before calling it a crisis. Apparently, some of them are pretty darned clean, considering.

Related Articles

  • Campus Explorer. "Dorm Life 101." (May 26, 2013)
  • CDC. "Mold: Basic Facts." (May 31, 2013)
  • Dellutri, Laura. Speed "Cleaning 101." iVillage. March 21, 2007. (May 26, 2013)
  • Dorm Co. "Community Shower." (May 26, 2013)
  • EnviroClean. "Frequently Asked Questions." (May 30, 2013)
  • Gerber, Liz. "The Truth About Dorm Bathrooms." Welcome to College, Freshmen. June 7, 2012. (May 26, 2013)
  • Hyde, Sandy. "Top Ten Dorm Bathroom Etiquette Tips." Etiquette School of Ohio. June 1, 2009. (May 26, 2013)
  • Mahmoud, Jasmine. "Cleaning Up Dorm Crew." The Harvard Crimson. Dec. 3, 2002. (May 31, 2013)
  • Scholarship Zone. "How to adjust to (and get through) sharing dorm bathrooms." June 1, 2012. (May 26, 2013)
  • Shaw, Gina. "Bathroom Germs You Can Really Catch." Web MD. Nov. 16, 2011. (May 31, 2013)
  • Szewcow, Gabriela. "Easy Ways to Keep Your Dorm Room Clean: Top 10 ways to make sure your room isn't a hot mess throughout the year." Her Campus. Sept. 9, 2012. (May 26, 2013)
  • Wojciechowska, Iza. "Maid service in dorms? It's expected at some colleges." Inside HigherEd (via USA Today). July 2, 2010. (May 26, 2013)