Your toilet is grosser than you think. Here’s how to clean it better.

Take your cleaning game to the next level with this expert advice.

(Anthony Calvert/Illustrations for The Washington Post)
6 min

If there’s one place in the home most of us can probably agree requires a regular scrubbing, it’s the toilet. But even if yours looks sparkling, truly getting it clean can be tricky, because the toilet provides optimal conditions for all kinds of bacteria, mold and viruses.

Changjie Cai, an aerosol scientist at the University of Oklahoma’s Hudson College of Public Health, heads a lab that studies what lurks in the bowl and what each flush may send into the air. One takeaway from his research: “We sometimes don’t pay attention to cleaning the underside of the rim. It can become very nasty,” he says. “Salmonella can persist there for a long time — months even — because it has the perfect environment.” (Staph and E. coli might be hiding there, too.)

For more expert insight into your toilet — and step-by-step advice on how to properly disinfect it — read on.

Assemble your tools

Selecting the right toilet brush is critical. Go for an angled one with stiff bristles, which will do a better job accessing the underside of the rim and inside the trap (the hole in the bottom of the bowl). An old toothbrush also works well for getting under the rim. Good Housekeeping recommends cleaning your toilet brush after each use by filling its holder with hot, soapy water; rinsing the brush; then repeating with cold water and a little bit of bleach. If you follow that process and your brush still doesn’t look clean, it’s time to replace it.

When it comes to protecting yourself, rubber dish gloves (designated for use in the bathroom only) are a great choice, because they extend nearly to your elbow. The pros at Molly Maid also recommend wearing a mask, particularly if your ventilation is subpar and you’re using products that require good airflow to be safe, such as bleach.

Choose cleaning products that disinfect

The American Cleaning Institute merely advises using a “disinfectant” on your toilet — but there are so many on the market that picking one can be confusing. One crucial tip: If the label promises that the product “kills 99.9%” of viruses and bacteria, that means the Environmental Protection Agency has verified that it will get the job done. Toilet-bowl cleaners by Lysol and Clorox are both verified, for instance, as are bathroom disinfectant sprays by those same brands (which can be used on the outside of the toilet).

If harsh chemicals are a concern, look out for the EPA’s “Safer Choice” label, which a product receives only after the agency has determined that its ingredients meet certain criteria for human and environmental health while remaining effective. Toilet cleaners by Seventh Generation, for example, carry the label.

For a simpler approach, old-fashioned household bleach remains arguably the best germ-killing bang for your buck. The EPA recommends a ratio of ⅓ cup liquid chlorine bleach per 1 gallon of water. (If you use bleach, be extra careful about properly ventilating the bathroom.)

Although a lot of people reach for the white vinegar when it’s time to clean, its ability to disinfect is limited, according to NSF International, an organization that tests products and develops public health standards for them. The pantry staple, however, is worth adding to your toilet-cleaning arsenal if you’re contending with tough stains. Try scouring them with a paste of 3 parts baking soda to 1 part white vinegar, a safe and effective way to break down grime.

One product to skip? Those bleach-based tablets for your tank that promise to continuously clean. They can damage a toilet’s rubber gaskets and seals. Plus, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals warns that they’re unhealthy for pets who slurp toilet water.

Properly ventilate the bathroom

Before you start cleaning, flip on the bathroom fan or open a window — or, if you can, do both. Between the fumes from your cleaning products and whatever’s kicked into the air while scrubbing, proper ventilation is essential.

Start with a wipe-down

To properly sanitize a toilet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, its surfaces must first be free of visible grime that could obstruct your disinfectant. So, if you can see gunk such as hair, mold and you-can-imagine-what-else, it’s important to give exterior parts such as the seat an initial wipe-down and the bowl a preliminary brushing.

Decrease the water level in the bowl

Lowering the water level doesn’t require a plumber’s license. In some toilets, you can just turn off the tank’s water supply and flush. If that doesn’t work, empty the bowl by plunging or by pouring in around 1½ gallons of water. (Either method will simulate a flush while preventing the bowl from refilling.)

Although this step might sound like overkill, we tried it ourselves and can attest that it’s a game changer. Less water makes cleaning the bowl marginally better, because you’re not as likely to splash yourself. Reducing the water minimizes reflections, giving you a clearer view of what’s going on in the bowl, and it allows cleaning products to work better, because they’re not as diluted and they’ll spend more time in direct contact with the toilet.

Scrub the bowl

Now you can really get down to business. Add your bowl cleaner and grab your angled brush. Be meticulous about scrubbing the underside of the rim, as well as the trap. Cai says that both areas are often neglected and hard to see, and that they tend to become hot zones for biofilms (essentially slimy colonies of microorganisms that attach to surfaces).

Be patient

A common mistake is to immediately flush away the cleaning product inside the bowl, minimizing its effectiveness. “If you want to disinfect, you have to allow sufficient contact time” with the disinfectant, Cai says. Follow the directions on the label, or if you’re unsure, the CDC recommends waiting at least a minute.

Disinfect the toilet’s exterior

The final step is to disinfect the exterior parts of the toilet. Using your EPA-verified disinfectant, spray and wipe down the top and underside of the seat, the bowl base, the top and underside of the lid, the tank, the handle and the hinges that connect the lid to the bowl. If you use a generous wad of toilet paper for the job, you’ll be able to flush it when you’re done. If you use paper towels, toss them in the trash immediately, so they don’t contaminate other areas. And remember: Every flush — not to mention, every poor aimer who uses your loo — sends all manner of germs beyond the boundaries of your toilet, so take care to clean the rest of your bathroom regularly, too.

Susannah Herrada is a travel and lifestyle writer in Virginia.

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