There’s perhaps nothing more universal than using the bathroom.
Everyone has to deal with poop and pee — and, if they are physically capable, wipe themselves afterward (at least we hope so) to seal the deal. The endeavor seems pretty straightforward, but you might be surprised to learn you could be doing it all wrong.
We’ve recently learned, for example, that some men are not washing their buttcracks after pooping or while in the shower; others are baffling their friends during a podcast interview with their controversial wiping “technique.” #Howtowipe has garnered over 9.4 million views on TikTok, where you can find video after video of experts from different backgrounds teaching what many of us assumed we were doing correctly.
People with vaginas definitely have more to consider than people with penises when it comes to healthy wiping. Nonetheless, anyone can make some of the biggest wiping-related mistakes, regardless of what’s in their pants.
Here are answers to some of the most urgent questions you may have about how to properly wipe after using the toilet.
What’s the best direction to wipe after peeing and pooping?
Regardless of what’s coming out, you will always want to wipe from front to back — something that is particularly vital after pooping, said Dr. Allison Rodgers, an OB-GYN and endocrinologist at Fertility Centers of Illinois.
Everyone should follow this advice, but it’s especially important for people with vaginas.
“Our rectum and our stool have a lot of bacteria that can be harmful to the vagina and to the urethra, which is where the urine comes out,” said Rodgers, who has posted TikToks on the topic. “I think that a lot of people will, not because they’re trying to, but inadvertently, get stool from their rectum up to their vagina if wiping from back to front.”
In other words, she advises moving from “clean to dirty.”
The reason why people with penises don’t have to worry too much about their wiping direction is because the distance between their rectum and urethra is much larger, so it’ll take a chaotic wipe for feces to reach vulnerable areas.
The penis also “isn’t a warm, moist, and dark cavity that bacteria likes to live in,” Rodgers said, “so it doesn’t really matter as much.”
Even better news for penis-havers is that they don’t usually have to wipe after peeing. Stool has a lot of bacteria, but urine has little or no bacteria. “It’s a waste material, but it’s not particularly dirty,” Rodgers said, “so people with penises can shake it off.”
People with vaginas still need to wipe after peeing given that “shaking off” isn’t as effective, but the front-to-back method definitely applies.
When it comes to the wiping motion, Rodgers suggests doing whatever’s most comfortable and will help you feel the most clean.
What can happen if you don’t wipe properly after using the bathroom?
MIllions of bacteria naturally live on your skin, including on vaginas, penises, and rectums. Most are harmless, even helpful to the microbiome. But some can cause infections and disease, especially if you use the same bit of toilet paper more than once (which you absolutely should never do) — so keep reminding yourself of the front-to-back rule.
Again, people with vaginas should be extra careful.
“There’s this delicate balance between good and evil in the vagina,” Rodgers said. “There’s always good Lactobacillus, which is normal bacteria that keeps your vagina healthy. But if a lot of it is killed, bad bacteria can grow and they can get there from things like wrong wiping.”
Unhealthy germs can also get a chance to grow in the vagina if you are taking certain medications or doing things like douching — the process of cleaning the inside of the vagina with water or other fluid mixtures — that disturb the vagina’s pH levels and normal, healthy organisms. Doctors say you should never douche, because it can lead to problems like infections.
One consequence is bacterial vaginosis: the most common vaginal infection that’s treatable with antibiotics, Rodgers said.
Dr. Anish Sheth, chief of gastroenterology at Penn Medicine Princeton Health, told BuzzFeed News that urinary tract infections could also emerge after wiping improperly. For people with penises, “there’s probably no infection risk,” he added.
Not wiping correctly could also mean you wipe too much or too little.
Going overboard on the wiping may cause irritation, or “micro trauma,” as Rodgers put it, to the delicate skin on the vulva or rectum. Sheth said irritation on the skin around the anus can cause external hemorrhoids to flare, which leads to itching, pain, and bleeding. (Hemorrhoids are inflamed or swollen veins in the rectum or anus.)
It’s possible, too, that tiny bits of poop can get stuck in the hair around the anus and stay there if you don’t wipe thoroughly, Rodgers said: “It can be incredibly irritating to the skin, and then you have an itchy butthole — and that’s embarrassing.”
If you do experience wiping-related irritation at some point, Rodgers suggests using Vaseline or creams like Desitin that can “act as a barrier, so when you poop it’s easier and doesn’t irritate your skin as much.”
But sometimes less is more, Sheth said: “You don’t need to scrub the area. Gentle wipes, about two or three, should do it. If you tend towards irritation, use water or wet toilet paper.”
Why does it sometimes take more wipes after pooping to get clean?
Each pooping experience is unique, so sometimes it takes a bit more effort to get clean, which typically isn’t a bad thing.
This is why it’s worthwhile to invest in quality toilet paper, Rodgers said, because in the event you need to wipe more than usual, you’ll have more gentle tissue that won’t irritate you. But even the most luxurious toilet paper can make your genital area feel raw if you overdo it.
In more serious scenarios, consistently soiled wipes after pooping can mean that internal hemorrhoids are bulging out of the anus, which can be painful and make it harder to get clean, Sheth said.
But if you’re lucky, every once in a while you may experience what Sheth calls the “holy grail of bowel movements” — “the clean sweep in which the first wipe has no residue whatsoever.”
Should you sit or stand while wiping after using the bathroom?
Ask any handful of people this question and you might be surprised to find out that the answers vary widely. In a 2018 informal poll of more than 3,000 people conducted by Men’s Health, 35% of men said they wiped standing up, which is similar to the 34% seen in a Reddit poll including both men and women. (There’s even a BuzzFeed video you can watch that outlines the debate.)
There’s no set medical advice on the position you should wipe in, but there’s no denying the convenience of having your cheeks spread wide while sitting, Rodgers said. (Just try not to sit for too long before finishing up because you increase your risk of hemorrhoids; sitting for extended periods of time can put extra pressure on the rectum, which can cause your hemorrhoids to swell.)
The only downfall is that your hand may get awfully close to the toilet water depending on your toilet’s design — just something else to consider.
If you prefer to wipe in a squatting position, aka hovering over the seat if you are using a traditional toilet, you can still get the job done.
What are some toilet paper alternatives?
Just because toilet paper is the norm, it’s not a requirement. There are some equally or even more effective alternatives to try if you’re looking for a cleaner, more comfortable, or environmentally friendly bathroom experience.
Bidets, for example, are highly recommended. Bidets are stand-alone plumbing fixtures designed to wash the genital and anal area with a gentle stream of water (basically, a shower for your butt). You can also buy a bidet attachment for your toilet.
You can use flushable wipes, too, but you may want to wipe with a dry piece of toilet paper afterward to avoid bacterial growth from any leftover moistness, Rodgers said. Despite being advertised as “flushable,” these wipes should never be flushed and can wreak havoc on sewer systems.
Wet wipes may also cause irritation for some people. “If you want to try them, especially after having a bowel movement, I would use sparingly, throw in the trash, and if irritation happens, discontinue their use,” Rodgers said.
And if it wasn’t already obvious, always wash your hands after using the bathroom!