Doesn’t it seem like so much of modern parenting is simply a never-ending struggle to keep kids away from dirt and germs? Parents try so hard to prevent kids from touching restroom door handles, eating bugs, pawing through the mud, or being on the receiving end of an errant sneeze or cough that it’s easy to start viewing the entire world as one big incubator of filth. If there’s one thing bathtime is good for, it’s the opportunity to hose the kids down and get them clean and bacteria-free before bed.
Not so fast, though … the very bathtub that parents think is so safe and sanitary may harbor some of the most germ-filled objects in the house. That’s right—children’s bath toys aren’t just squeaky-clean fun.
A Sickening Stew
According to a recent Today show segment on hidden and surprising sources of dirt, tub toys can harbor bacteria and microbes that are potentially hazardous to children. Dr. Philip Tierno, a microbiologist from New York University who was interviewed on the show, said that the rubber duckies and other plastic trinkets children love to play with can accumulate bacteria at an alarming rate. “It’s filth,” he told Today. Since bathwater itself is full of the dissolved dirt, bacteria, and other microorganisms covering our bodies, that toxic cocktail can coat the toys, too, if they’re not cleaned regularly. “Bathwater becomes, literally, a bacterial soup,” Tierno said. “The toys are the depository of these organisms.”
During tests Dr. Tierno conducted, bath toys were discovered to harbor fecal contaminants, such as E. coli and streptococcus, as well as staph aureus and other germs and viruses. They thrive in the warm, moist atmosphere of the bathtub, and since most toys are left there even when bathtime’s done, they never get a chance to dry completely, thereby allowing bacteria to multiply unchecked. When kids play with the toys, putting them in or near their mouths and using them to squirt water onto each other, those bacteria can quickly spread.
All toys can harbor bacterial growth, but especially the ones with crevices or creases that are hard to clean. The worst by far, however, are rubber “squeaky” toys, or those with holes. Because the insides of these toys never dry fully, the bacteria that make their way inside form large colonies. Hollow tub toys were shown to have visible mold colonies and bacterial growth on the inside that was completely undetectable from the outside.
But dirty tub water isn’t the only thing that contaminates bath toys; they’re also susceptible to microorganisms from the toilet. In 1975, University of Arizona professor Charles Gerba published a scientific paper detailing the phenomenon of aerosolization; he found that whenever a toilet flushes, the force of the flush creates a vapor cloud of water and other toilet effluvia. His experiments showed that these vapor clouds, which can include fecal material, bacteria, and other harmful microbes, stayed in the air for up to twenty minutes before eventually landing on other bathroom surfaces, including sinks, toothbrushes, and tubs. Even though the amount of bacteria dispersed is still less, on average, than what’s living on your kitchen sponge, it’s still enough to give parents pause.
Cleaning Up the “Rubber Yuckies”
If the thought of your children bathing with little bacteria bombs makes your skin crawl, take comfort in the fact that keeping most toys squeaky-clean is simple. Today’s Dr. Tierno recommends making sure that bath toys be air-dried completely, away from any moisture source. Putting them into a cupboard may not be the best idea, however, since some cupboards under sinks can be even damper and warmer than the tub itself. Put the toys in a mesh bag and dry them in a separate room, or outside if it’s a nice day.
Take the time to clean toys occasionally with a mild bleach solution, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or a mixture of vinegar and water to kill any living organisms on the toys’ surfaces. Another easy tactic is to run them through the dishwasher a few times per month. If, despite your efforts, you notice black crud developing anywhere on or in the toy, just throw it away.
In the future, avoid buying squeezy toys with holes that can trap and harbor bacteria. Try to use bath toys without nooks, crannies, crevices, or holes for bacteria to hide in, and that are made from nonporous plastic that will hold up well during repeated cleanings. Keeping the tub itself clean can also help cut down on the number of bacteria that live in the bathroom. If you choose to use harsh or abrasive chemical cleansers, though, be sure to rinse the tub thoroughly before you draw a bath for your kids. Also, it’s not a foolproof method, but keeping the toilet seat cover down when you flush is one way to lessen the impact of the aerosolized toilet water.
The next time your kids take a bath, try not to think of the event as a stew in “bacterial soup.” By giving them clean, safe toys to splash around with, you’ll make the experience a little less stomach-churning and a lot more fun.