Confession: I Didn't Always Wash After Peeing; Now I Will
I'm going to be straight with you: I used to not wash my hands after peeing. Before you write me off completely, you should know that I've always washed my hands after shitting (I'm not a monster!), just as I've always scrubbed up if I'm about to eat food. But for as long as I can remember, chances are that if I were taking a quick break at the urinal at a bar or movie theater, I would zip up and breeze right past the sinks when I was finished.
Sound gross to you? Maybe, but my perspective was that if a man showers regularly, wears clean underwear, and doesn't pee on his hands, then what does he have to wash? It's not like I'm dragging my penis through the gutter, so theoretically it should be as clean as my chest or neck. In 2009 I worked in the same building as a leading climate scientist who would never wash his hands after peeing. When I asked him why, he said it was to save water and paper. "It's not like I'm peeing all over my hands," he said. "Exactly!" I responded.
On top of all this, I gave up using soap and shampoo (save for my armpits and crotch) back in January. In the ensuing weeks, during which I've suffered no adverse effects, I've grown more and more skeptical of the Sanitary Industrial Complex we've created in America. The one that tells us to use "face wash" to stay pretty, to rub sanitizer over our hands at every free moment, and to take so many antibiotics as to make our current medicines useless.
As children, we were told time and again to always wash our hands after using the bathroom. Growing up, that made sense to me. But as I got older and stopped touching filthy things like the monkey bars or other mouth-breathing children, washing my hands all the time started to seem archaic—something boys do, not men. In fact, on a recent list of things men shouldn't do, Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes made number eight "No Washing Your Hands After You Piss."
"This is always a crowd pleasing conversation in my microbiology classes," says Pat Fidopiastis, an assistant professor of biology at Cal Poly. Fidopiastis says he's heard all of my hand-washing protestations before, and to all of them he has the same response: "Perianal sweat."
The perianal area is the small patch of flesh just outside the rectum, a spot on the human body that "inevitably becomes loaded with fecal bacteria," according to Fidopiastis. ("Frankly, toilet paper only satisfies your visual senses into thinking that you're clean"). When you start to perspire, even a little, sweat from the perianal area starts dripping around in your underwear, eventually getting into the fabric and moving onto your genitals.
"The point is that simply touching the penis in an effort to direct your urine flow can be more than enough to transfer harmful microbes to your hands, and then on to the pretzels sitting in bowl on the bar," says Fidopiastis.
"But what about oral sex?" I ask. "We never tell people to clean their crotches before oral sex the way we tell them to wash their hands before they eat." Fidopiastis says that's because the human mouth is actually far less hospitable to bacteria than, say, chips and dip at a party.
"The mouth is a well-protected place," he says. "Your saliva is full of antimicrobial compounds and saliva mostly ends up being swallowed into you highly acidic stomach full of digestive enzymes. So the levels of microbes someone is likely to get into their mouth straight off a typical hygienic penis more than likely won't be enough to breach these formidable barriers."
Lest you think I'm totally gross, Fidopiastis adds that there may be instances when we needn't wash our hands after peeing. "If you can urinate in a hands-free urinal and pee without touching you penis, can you not wash?" he says. "I guess my answer there would be a half-hearted, 'Sure, why not?'"
Fidopiastis says that a 2003 American Society of Microbiology study found 30 percent of the people using bathrooms in New York City airports weren't washing their hands when they were done. If that tells us how most Americans go about their daily hygiene, there are a lot of dirty hands out there. And yet most people are able to avoid horrible illnesses. "If not washing your hands every single time we use the bathroom were as bad as it seems," he says, "we would definitely have found out by now, just as we've come to realize just how bad smoking is."