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Are You Hanging Your Toilet Paper Right? Here's Why it Matters

What every germophobe needs to know.

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illustration of people examining different directions of toilet paper on holder
Vincent Kilbride
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I typically don’t possess an unyielding position on societal decorum as, I have learned, one’s propensity towards doing things is generally dictated by familial experiences. And who am I to suggest that my way is correct? How often do we judge others’ actions before we come to understand their reasoning? And how often do we condemn before questioning our own culpability?

I can appreciate differing ideologies due to cultural and religious disciplines. I can even concede to objectionable behavior because of one’s circumstances. And, over time, I have sorely come to recognize that things are never quite as they appear. Yet, all that wisdom aside, there are those few occasions when one’s background has no bearing on the principled correctness of certain behaviors. So, I am here to tell you that there is only one way to hang toilet paper.

It’s not an issue of lifestyle or religious/cultural upbringing. It’s not an issue of one’s political allegiance. It’s purely a matter of science. And, given the horrific pandemic that we have been living with, this issue does matter.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that there are two ways to hang toilet paper. The first, being with the detached end suspended over the top of the roll, away from the wall. And the second being with the detached end hanging under the roll or next to the wall.

Over or under?

Who better to dictate the correct posture of the hanging roll than the man who is credited with its invention, Seth Wheeler. A picture associated with his 1891 patent of perforated, roll-form toilet paper, a framed copy of which is hanging just above the toilet in my powder room, clearly displays his intent through a series of illustrations depicting the toilet paper going over the top of the roll. But, unfortunately, until recently, Wheeler’s identity and his designs had gone unnoticed, as did his intent.

When intent fails, though, science and hygiene provide direction. In 2011, researchers at the University of Colorado performed a study using a high-tech genetic sequencing tool, whereby they were able to classify 19 groups of bacteria from the surfaces of 12 public restrooms, most of which they identified as E. coli. This bacterium, which can lead to nasty food-poisoning symptoms, is easily transferred from surfaces to our fingers, and then of course, to wherever those fingers may travel.

Just from the sink to the toilet, we are subjecting ourselves to 19 different pathogens, and we haven’t yet squatted. We’re talking countertops, soap dispensers, bathroom doors, flushers, walls, and yes, the toilet paper roll itself. But there’s more!

In 2009, Infection Control Today reported a finding that toilet paper dispensers have 150 times more bacteria than the seat. More than the seat! That’s crazy. Is it not worth emphasizing that more bacteria have been detected on the toilet paper receptacles than on the spot where others have placed their naked butts? Who knew?

To think that all these years we’ve been focused on covering the toilet seat when in fact it’s been the receptacles that we need protection from. They’re essentially an Armageddon of pathogens.

With that science as background, here’s the hygiene. Think about when you reach for the severed end of the toilet paper roll. It requires less effort to grasp it from the top rather than having to reach under and search for it. The “search” frequently requires a two-handed effort of spinning and grabbing. But with the “over” method, the paper naturally hangs away from the roll, allowing for limited contact with any portion of the roll that you don’t intend to use, as well as the receptacle itself.

Alternatively, when you dispense toilet paper using the “under” method, it’s more likely that the paper has been rubbing against the bathroom wall, which we have now learned is a magnet for bacteria. Chances are your hand will have grasped more than just the paper, inevitably dispatching some, if not all, of the 19 pathogens with each wipe to your derriere.

Given that the bathroom is an indisputable haven for bacteria, think about how many other hands have committed the same maneuvers before you. It’s unimaginable. And, given where the tissue is destined, does that hand-glide into the bowl seem hygienic? As an “under” person, you not only become a receptacle for bacteria, but also a conduit. Sure, most of the bacteria that we speak of is not harmful if you wash your hands. But can you be sure of all those hands before you? Admittedly, do you sing Happy Birthday two times, as some doctors suggest, when washing your hands after each flush? By the same token, how often do you wash your hands before you use the toilet?

Rarely — if ever.

I understand there are those whose position on this topic will not be influenced by intent, science or. For them, we turn to our trained professionals in the field of housekeeping. And, who better versed on the aesthetics of toilet paper hanging than the hotel industry, whose discipline clearly is to provide not only a safe and hygienic environment, but one that is inviting for their guests on a daily basis.

How would we know that the room was cleaned if not by the tiny triangles on the ends of the paper roll that are created by the housekeeping staff? You can’t do that with an “under” roll.

Do you support the theory of extraterrestrial existence or not? It’s debatable. Do you own an electric vehicle to help save the planet? Totally your choice. Do you love carrot-beet ice cream? Not for me, but, hey, that’s why there are 31 flavors. Everyone has their preferences and pet peeves.

Mine happens to be with toilet paper.

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