Oct. 14, 2005 -- Few inanimate objects arouse as much universal germ fear -- especially among women -- as the dreaded public toilet seat.
"That's like the first rule -- don't sit on the toilet seat," one woman told "20/20."
Another woman described public toilets as being both nasty and filthy. And a man told us he would "rather go almost anywhere else than a public bathroom."
"Fifty percent of American women won't sit on a seat without some type of guard or without hovering," said Allison Janse, author of "The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu."
She admits she has spent years herself dangling over toilet seats, but now this self-professed germ freak is changing her attitude. She says paper toilet shields help your head more than your bottom, and those who hover often just leave a mess for the next person.
How Many Germs Sit on the Seat?
Mothers teach their daughters not to sit on a public toilet seat, but is this really a big source of germs?
"No," said Janse. "You're not going to get germs from your backside. You're going to get them from your hands."
To see if that's true, "20/20" asked Janse's co-author Dr. Charles Gerba to check our bathroom with his germ meter.
"Usually, actually the floor is the dirtiest, as you might guess," said Gerba.
The floor test revealed about 2 million bacteria per square inch. Gerba says that's about 200 times higher than a sanitary surface.
"This is pretty bad," said Gerba. "We consider that a fail. So you don't want to walk around barefoot in ABC News toilets."
Not surprisingly, the sanitary napkin disposal unit also failed the test and rated as the spot with the most germs in our ladies' room.
But our sink, an area that is usually a haven for germs, was found to be unexpectedly clean. The biggest surprise was found on the toilet seat.
"This is the cleanest spot so far," said Gerba.
Gerba defines a sanitary surface as something clean enough to eat off of, with no more than 1,000 bacteria per square inch. The toilet seat passed that test, but "20/20" reporter Don Dahler's desk failed.
Still, it will be hard for most people to accept the conclusions shown by the data.
"No matter how often you hear that, you know, it's safer to eat your turkey wrap off the toilet seat than your desktop at work, you're just not going to believe it," said Janse.
Avoiding Germs in the Stall
When you're out using a public restroom, there are a few things you should consider doing when it's time to visit a stall.
Janse said that since most people seek privacy by going to the stalls in the back of the bathroom, you will find fewer bacteria in the first stall.
And ladies, never put your bags on the floor.
"We found fecal bacteria on about 30 percent of the bottom of women's purses. So you may be moving bacteria from the bottom of the restroom floor to maybe the kitchen sink area when you're going to make lunch," said Gerba.
Here's another tip: Don't be deceived by appearances. While the men's room may look messier and smell much worse -- thanks to the urinal -- the ladies room harbors twice as much bacteria.
"There's probably more bacteria in the women's room because they spend a longer time there and also they bring in small children" said Gerba.
He says most of the germs you and your children pick up in the bathroom are on your hands, so make sure to wash them well but skip the so-called sanitary hand dryer.
"You actually end up with more bacteria with the hand blower because they're taking the air in the restroom and blowing it onto your hands with the bacteria on it," said Gerba.
But once your hands are clean there's no need to worry about the door handle.
"Really the cleanest areas in the bathroom are actually the door handle and the toilet seat," said Gerba.
He said that could just be because those are the two spots people fear and avoid the most.