Have you ever done your business, flushed the toilet, then stopped to ponder the short distance between the whirlpool of human waste and your vulnerable toothbrush on the counter? Or are you a proponent of storing your toothbrush inside your medicine cabinet for this very reason?
Either way, there are some interesting (and potentially off-putting) facts to know about different modes of toothbrush storage. Read on for an expert-informed exploration of the most sanitary home for your toothbrush.
Where to store your toothbrush
We could spend all day debating the scientific merits of various toothbrush storage locations. While it’s an interesting conversation, it’s probably not worth actually stressing about this. As long as you’re not storing your toothbrush in an obviously filthy place (like, literally on your toilet), you’re probably just fine.
“For the most part, it makes no difference where one stores a toothbrush,” Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a board-certified infectious disease and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SELF.
That’s because we live in a world full of germs, and that includes your toothbrush—no matter where you keep it. “It is important to remember that [your] toothbrush will never be sterile, [because] whatever environment it is placed in will have microorganisms that will settle upon it,” says Dr. Adalja.
With that said, it’s best not to keep your toothbrush really close to your toilet. That’s not because it poses a serious threat to your health, but because it’s honestly kind of gross.
Keeping your toothbrush out in the open in your bathroom exposes it to a little something called toilet plume, Omai Garner, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor, section chief of clinical microbiology and director of Point of Care Testing in the UCLA Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, tells SELF.
If you haven’t heard of this phenomenon, you’ve been living in blissful ignorance. Toilet plume is the aerosolized cloud of microscopic particles, including urine and feces, that sprays into the air and onto surrounding surfaces when you flush the toilet. Experts aren’t sure exactly how far toilet plume can reach, but if your toothbrush is on the counter, it’s probably well within range. The closer it gets to your toilet, the more likely it’ll get spritzed with that plume.
While that's not a pleasant idea, it’s no big deal when it comes to your health, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). The organization emphasizes that although toothbrushes have been found to carry bacteria (including from feces), there is no solid proof that this will actually harm you.
Scientists don’t have evidence of loads of people actually getting sick from toilet plume, let alone from using toilet plume-coated toothbrushes. Yes, Garner notes that it is technically possible, especially if someone with a highly infectious illness like norovirus uses your toilet. Norovirus causes more food poisoning in the United States than any other pathogen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That potency is one reason why a 2015 review of epidemiologic studies and lab experiments published in the American Journal of Infection Control notes that norovirus may present the biggest risk of airborne infection from toilet plume. It also takes very few particles to transmit this infection, and norovirus can live on surfaces for days or weeks. Again, though, this may pose a much bigger theoretical risk than an actual one. Overall, toilet plume is more of a disgusting thing to know about than something to worry about every time you pick up your toothbrush.
How to store your toothbrush
“Toothbrushes should be stored upright in an environment that allows for them to dry out completely between uses,” Mia L. Geisinger, D.D.S., M.S., associate professor and director of the Advanced Education Program in Periodontology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry, tells SELF. That’s why medicine cabinets are generally frowned upon for toothbrush storage.
A small, sealed off medicine cabinet creates a humid enclosure that may theoretically allow pathogens to thrive since moisture is conducive to microbial growth (like that of mold and bacteria). But as Dr. Geisinger points out, similarly with toilet plume, there is no evidence that storing your toothbrush in your medicine cabinet is directly linked with negative health consequences.
What you do here really comes down to how much you hate the ideas of toilet plume and microbial growth on your toothbrush in a medicine cabinet. If neither of these scenarios bothers you, feel free to keep storing your toothbrush the way you always have. If both gross you out and you’re not sure what to do, you could change your toothbrush storage based on the situation.
For instance, you can keep your toothbrush out on the counter but institute a lid-down flushing rule, more for the sake of your mind than your actual health. In fairness, that would be a lot easier to communicate to someone like a partner than a one-time guest, new friend, or group of people hanging out at your place.
In those cases, you might decide to keep your toothbrush in the medicine cabinet for a short period, or to leave it on the counter but put a toothbrush cover over the head. That may impact its ability to dry out as quickly, which is why Dr. Geisinger is generally against these covers. However, she says, short-term use is probably OK.
You might even be so grossed out that you’d rather keep your toothbrush on a stand in your bedroom. It’s up to you. Overall, though, don’t let this take up too much space in your brain. You’re much more likely to get sick in other ways, like by picking up a virus on the job.
A few more ways to stay on top of your toothbrush hygiene
Instead of worrying too much about toothbrush storage, make sure you’re taking care of all aspects of toothbrush hygiene. The ADA has some pretty simple rules to follow:
- Don’t share your toothbrush. Duh. You could swap pathogens.
- Rinse it well after every use. Wash off any remaining food particles and toothpaste. (We can also personally vouch for the vigorous wrist-flicking method.)
- Don’t let anyone else’s toothbrush head touch yours. If you store several toothbrushes in the same holder, the CDC advises not letting the brush heads touch each other.
- Replace it at least every three to four months. Toothbrushes become less effective over time. Swap in a new one before this if the bristles become visibly frayed.
- Skip the disinfectants and sanitizers. According to the ADA, there’s not a ton of research on toothbrush sanitizing. And the CDC recommends against soaking toothbrushes in disinfecting solutions or mouthwash, which might just provide more opportunities for cross-contamination. To avoid damaging your toothbrush, they also advise against trying to use microwaves, dishwashers, or ultraviolet sanitizing devices.
Wherever you choose to keep your toothbrush, prioritize these basic tips for oral hygiene, and you should be good to go. And, you know, toss your toothbrush if you drop it in the toilet.
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