A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why are men supposed to wash their hands after urination? Plus: urine therapy!

January 12, 1996

Dear Cecil:

First, an (elderly) joke.

A Harvard man and a Yale man are at the urinal. They finish and zip up. The Harvard man proceeds to the sink to wash his hands, while the Yale man immediately makes for the exit.

The Harvard man says, "At Hah-vahd they teach us to wash our hands after we urinate."

The Yale man replies, "At Yale they teach us not to piss on our hands."

My question: why is it customary for males to wash their hands after urination? I never do, which shocks and disgusts some of my guy friends. I bathe daily and wear fresh underpants, so how does my penis get dirty? It's not like I dig a ditch with it. However, my hands might get dirty from daily activities. Is it not more sensible then to wash my hands before touching my clean penis? Is posturination hand washing a throwback to the bad old days, when sex was "dirty" and so, by extension, were sex organs? I'm serious about this. Please advise.

Dear Tom:

Good (if elderly) joke. Common (but stupid) attitude. Rank (but important) topic. Some facts: The purpose of washing is not to get pee off your hands. No amount of washing will make you clean. You have to do it anyway.

I've said this before: your boxer-shorts region — from belly button to mid-thigh — is crawling with germs known as coliform bacteria. These bacteria originated in your intestine, and some of them are deadly. Remember punji stakes? They were sharpened sticks that the Vietcong concealed point up along trails and daubed with excrement. If you stepped on one you had a good chance of contracting a fatal infection. Similarly, an otherwise not-so-serious gunshot or knife injury could kill you if it perforated the intestine and allowed coliform bacteria to spread around your abdomen.

But you know this (or at least you ought to). What you may not know is that washing will not make the coliform bacteria go away. They're holed up in the pores of your skin and nothing short of sandblasting — certainly not your morning shower — is going to get them out. Showering merely gets rid of the ones that have strayed onto the surface. The bacteria won't do much harm if they stay put, but when you urinate your fingers come in contact with Mister P. long enough for the coliform bacteria in your pores to hop aboard. Your fingers subsequently touch lots of other infectible items. If you don't wash your hands with soap and water (soap gets rid of the skin oil that the bacteria stick to) … hello, Typhoid Mary.

It now dawns on you: jeez, if merely touching my privates is enough to transmit bacteria, it doesn't matter if I pee or not! Just so. Urine itself is actually fairly sterile. Cecil has read reports of it being used during wartime in poor countries as — I'm not making this up — a sort of battlefield Bactine. (U.S. doctors generally blanch at this.) The lesson to draw from this, however, is not that you can go forth dripping (yuck), but rather that just because you didn't pee on your fingers doesn't mean you can skip washing up.

Watch what you eat

Dear Cecil:

After reading your column on hand washing after urination, I'm certain I'm going to die — that is, if coliform bacteria are as bad as you say. My girlfriend and I often share the pleasures of fellatio and cunnilingus. Heck, one night I even got up the nerve to perform (ahem) analingus. But what about the dread coliform bacteria? I'm certain some of these bacteria came in contact with our mouths at some time. Yet I have never been sick due to these forms of sexual gratification. Do we just swallow it and put it back where it came from (our intestines) or what? Please don't tell me I have to refrain from yet another fun thing to do.

Cecil replies:

Nothing like causing a national panic. Now I know why Pat Buchanan likes to run for president. Mrs. Adams had the same thought you guys did, probably at about the same point during the evening's proceedings. "Babe," I said, "you think sex is safe? Let me tell you about sexually transmitted diseases." Not the most romantic line I ever used. But the truth is you can catch lots of bugs via oral sex. Many of them are transmitted by, or have their transmission facilitated by, coliform or other fecal bacteria or, for that matter, fecal viruses. There's no point in stopping now though. You can catch most of the same germs from intercourse, kissing, or simply holding hands.

For example, a common complaint among women is urinary-tract infection, which is often caused by sexually transmitted fecal bacteria. Research suggests these bacteria travel to the entrance of the vagina, get shoved in by the penis during intercourse, and then migrate to the bladder. In other words, the guy helps infect the woman with her own germs. (Doctors — male ones usually — blame this on the "woefully short" female urethra.) It seems likely oral sex could accomplish the same thing, but for a given infection there's no way to tell.

It's rare that a specific sexual practice is associated with spreading germs, but there are exceptions. About 20 years ago clinicians began noticing what has come to be called "gay bowel syndrome," a collection of intestinal and rectal complaints that frequently plague gay men. Many of these illnesses stem from infection by fecal bacteria following anal sex — specifically, anal intercourse, analingus, and fellatio following anal intercourse. Some heterosexual couples (estimates range from 5 to 27 percent) also engage in anal sex, and they're at risk too.

The question is how much risk. The answer is probably not much, unless they're unusually out there sexually. A key factor in gay bowel syndrome and in the spread of STDs generally is multiple sex partners, which exponentially increases your exposure to infection. In contrast, monogamous couples, whether gay or straight, soon achieve "homeostasis" — they've swapped germs, didn't come down with anything, and thereafter coexist in a state of microbial equilibrium. That's not to say they're germfree; they may simply be "asymptomatic carriers" of some bug that doesn't make them sick but that might lay low an outsider. Granted, the danger isn't very great, but it exists. I was just reading in the Harvard Medical School Health Letter about a 51-year-old guy who learned that hepatitis C had destroyed his liver. He'd had no previous symptoms, but the kicker is that he'd contracted hepatitis C 46 years before. Hepatitis C isn't transmitted by fecal bacteria; my point is that just because you don't think you have anything doesn't mean you don't. Thus the apparent paradox: you can frolic with your honey all you want, but you still have to wash your hands after using the pot.

We're doomed

Mindful of our discussion about the importance of washing one's hands after going to the bathroom and recalling my comment that urine itself, being fairly sterile, is not the problem, a reader sent me a clipping from the March/April 1996 Yoga Journal.

Here's the headline: "Drink to Your Health: Wealthy French women bathed in it, Chinese doctors used it to soothe sore throats, and now you — all squeamishness aside — can drink it to cure what ails you."

Guess what "it" is.

You guessed right.

I'm serious.

I quote author Blake More:

"Odds are you're among the 27 million Americans who recycle. … Would you be willing to take the act of recycling a step further and internally honor your bodily home, if it meant you'd have more energy, a stronger immune system, and an ageless complexion? Of course you would."

Welcome to urine therapy.

All it takes, says Blake, is eight ounces a day.

Blake first heard about UT from a naturopath in Japan. Of course she had to try it — wouldn't you? Four years later, she reports, "I'm a different person. I'm more in tune with my body's needs and functions, and no longer anemic or hypoglycemic. I rarely get colds, haven't had the flu in years, and the yeast infection that had long been plaguing me is gone. … I now feel healthy and strong." Only problem is gargling with those little deodorant blocks.

She goes on to give a long list of diseases, including many related to AIDS, that urine therapy will supposedly alleviate. The list includes everything from gangrene to hair loss to malaria. Sure.

While I don't suppose there's any danger urine therapy will become the next macarena, I did take the precaution of checking out the concept with University of Chicago kidney specialist Dr. John Asplin. He thought urine consumption in moderate quantities was probably harmless.

The stuff is fairly sterile, and if you do happen to have a urinary-tract infection or something, well, you've already got whatever germs you're consuming. (Former Indian prime minister Moraji Desai, a daily urine drinker, lived to be 99.)

On the other hand, Asplin said, UT isn't likely to do you much good either. Listen to your body. Your body is saying, "I just got rid of this stuff, granola-brain. Are you nuts?"

But if you want to try it, be my guest. Just don't eat any asparagus first.

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