Public female restroom.

If a restroom smells, there is cause to be suspicious.  

If the restroom smells bad, it is likely not clean. If it smells like a cleaning product, one might wonder whether a potentially toxic chemical was used or, more likely, misused. Meanwhile, a flowery or fruity scent raises the question of whether the cleaning team is trying to cover something up.  

The reality is a restroom that has been cleaned to the highest level of safe, clean and healthy should not smell. 

Restrooms Can be Gross 

According to a study published in “Applied and Environmental Microbiology,” scientists found traces of more than 77,000 distinct types of bacteria and viruses in restrooms. However, while most people assume the germiest culprit is the toilet, this is usually untrue. Consider: 

Sinks. In public restrooms, sinks are far more bacteria-laden than other areas since handwashing dislodges bacteria and other germs, some of which go down the drain while much lands on the sink. 

Counters and other surfaces. Studies show that within an hour of normal use, there are an average of 500,000 bacterial cells per square inch on restroom surfaces. 

Restroom floors. These are among the dirtiest surfaces in a restroom because of traffic and open toilet flushing that sprays bacterium and other matter. One test revealed the restroom floor possessed two million bacteria per square inch, about 200 times higher than a sanitary surface.  

Soap dispensers. About 25 percent of dispensers in public restrooms are coated by fecal bacteria. Soap dispensers are frequently left uncleaned, while dispenser bottoms, frequently touched by dirty hands, collect and feed millions of bacteria. 

The highly contagious pathogens found in restrooms include norovirus, E. coli, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), staphylococcus aureus, and even HIV and hepatitis C, to name a few. Equally scary, science suggests public restrooms “can act as reservoirs of drug-resistant bacteria.” 

In addition to posing health risks, malodors and visual signs of an unclean restroom leave facility occupants and visitors feeling nervous about their health and safety and can leave building patrons skeptical of the cleanliness of the facility overall. Dirty restrooms are also bad for business, with 56 percent of Americans saying they would not return to a business with a poorly maintained restroom. 

Cleaning Versus Polluting 

If dirty, malodorous restrooms are unhealthy, make patrons uneasy, and are bad for business, why are so many restrooms in such poor condition? Often, it is because, despite the best intentions and employing good people, some cleaning operations are doing more polluting than cleaning. 

Cleaning is safely removing unwanted soils and pathogens and depositing them in their proper place. Polluting is the spreading or moving around of unwanted soils and pathogens caused by improper cleaning products, procedures, equipment and custodial hardware, frequency, and the absence of a data-based quality assurance program to verify results. It’s important to look closer into these areas as a way to help keep cleaning operations from going astray. Here are a few areas to consider. 

1. Products  

The number of cleaning products on the market can make choosing the right one for the restroom confusing. However, there are guiding principles to help ensure cleaning professionals are using the most effective and safest possible formulas. 

• Air fresheners should be used sparingly. Not only because they are suspect, but they can also cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritation and headaches for people with little-to-no tolerance for fragrance. They may, however, be temporarily appropriate in instances of severe malodor until the cause of the unpleasant smell can be identified and removed. 

• A 1:256 neutral floor or neutral disinfectant cleaner should not be used, even though they are lower in cost of product at use. A more effective dedicated restroom surface and floor cleaner are required. 

• General-purpose cleaners and disinfectants are typically ineffective for removing urine, fecal matter, body fluids, soap, hard water deposits, and other frequent restroom substances. Here, again, a dedicated restroom cleaner is a better choice. 

• A bio-enzymatic restroom floor cleaner is best for restroom floors with tile and grout. However, not all bio-enzymatic products work the same. A formulation made specifically for restrooms is necessary to ensure it contains the bacteria and enzymes that thrive on urine, fecal matter and body fluids as their sources of food. 

• A bio-enzymatic urinal puck, not a traditional puck, should be used to prevent malodors from originating from urinal pipes. 

• All restroom cleaning products, including bio-enzymatic products, should be certified “green” by EcoLogo, Green Seal, and/or the U.S. EPA Safer Choice. 

• Disinfectants should be used only where and when necessary. They are not required for all surfaces at all times for all restrooms. Proper cleaning effectively removes soils and pathogens. Typically, only contact points, such as door handles, fixtures, light switches, urinal and toilet flush handles, toilet seats and soap dispensers require disinfecting after proper cleaning. 

• When disinfectants are necessary, choose the safest one possible for restroom users, cleaning staff, and the environment that lists the targeted pathogens on its label. As always, it is best practice to rinse the surfaces disinfected after the stated dwell time.  

• Bio-enzymatic products should not be used on surfaces that will be disinfected because doing so negatively impacts the efficacy of both formulas: The disinfectant will kill the bacteria, eliminating their longer-term cleaning capabilities, while the disinfectant’s effectiveness against the pathogens is reduced by fighting the bacteria in the bio-enzymatic products. 

2. Procedures 

• Never “double dip”; always use a clean cleaning solution to avoid cross-contamination. 

• Wipe and mop in one direction, not back and forth over the same area, which can re-contaminate the surface. 

• When possible, use an autoscrubber or mini/micro autoscrubber on restroom floors with the proper cleaning chemical and employ a two-step process: Apply solution and scrub in the first pass, then scrub and pick up on the second pass. This allows the cleaning chemical to have dwell time and soak into cracks and grout. 

• If an autoscrubber is unavailable, clean floors using a dual-compartment bucket and wet the floor with the cleaning solution using a clean mop head. Allow designated dwell time, then pick up the solution and wring the dirty solution into the second compartment. 

• Avoid using an overly moist flat mop on grout that will not provide sufficient mechanical action and leave solution behind. 

• Disinfect correctly. This includes cleaning first, then applying the disinfectant (Note: There is no such thing as a one-step cleaner/disinfectant; however, that type of product can be used for both steps). Then, allow the surface to stay wet for the stated dwell time before wiping. Most disinfectants require a clear water rinse, but regardless, it is a best practice always to rinse disinfected surfaces. Similar to why people rinse their bodies, clothes, dishes, and cars after washing, surfaces where people sit, touch, and eat should be rinsed to remove any sticky or harsh residue.   

3. Equipment and Custodial Hardware 

• Use the most effective equipment possible within budget constraints. 

• Research new technologies thoroughly and have workers test various brands in real-life settings before purchasing. 

• Instead of paper or cotton towels, use microfiber cloths that pick up and retain more water and soil. Ensure they are properly folded to expose a clean portion with each use, and color-coded by area or task.   

• If possible, use autoscrubbers instead of mops and buckets. 

• For deep cleaning, a “no touch” spray, dwell, agitate, vacuum, and dry system is typically more effective and faster than hand cleaning and mopping. 

• Buyer beware: There is a lot of talk surrounding steam and dry vapor cleaning or disinfecting devices. While cleaning without chemicals is admirable, steam cleaners can use too much water, spoiling assets and voiding some surface and fixture manufacturers’ warranties. Meanwhile, most — if not all — dry steam vapor cleaners are not disinfecting devices. Some manufacturers of these units make false claims. If the goal is disinfection, the device must have an EPA Establishment Number on the unit. It also should have scientific, peer-reviewed studies that include the product’s specific name, pathogens it is effective against, kill rates, and dwell time. If the contact time is more than a few seconds, it may not be practical due to potential asset damage caused by excessive moisture and/or heat, voided warranties, and higher labor costs. Ensure the manufacturer has local distribution that can provide onsite demonstrations, cleaning staff testing, support, training, service, and warranty work. Lastly, carefully consider the cost of the unit and productivity versus other options for disinfecting. 

4. Frequency 

• Cleaning is best done immediately before and after high-traffic use. 

• Technology should be used to track traffic volume and usage times to schedule cleaning appropriately. 

• Technology is also available that can save 20 to 30 percent of the cost of consumables, including paper towels, toilet tissue, hand soap, hand sanitizer, and trash can liners based on use. 

• Cleaning schedules that are not based on area usage waste time and money. 

5. Verify and Validate Quality 

• Quality assurance programs should be formally monitored and structured based on objective, evidence-based data. This means cleaning results should be measured, tracked, reported, monitored and acted upon. 

• Quality should not be determined by sight and smell alone. Cleaning results should be tracked using newer technologies, such as fluorescent marking, ATP meters, fluorescent imaging, or a combination of these devices. 

• Results should be recorded digitally instead for easy storing, access and sharing. 

• Collected data should be monitored and acted upon to drive improvement by adjusting the cleaning products, procedures, equipment, and frequency, as well as training, retraining and coaching. 

Restrooms convey a lot about a facility and its cleaning operation. Cleaning professionals should be sure the restrooms they maintain offer patrons the highest level of cleanliness, safety and health. 

Take this short quiz to learn how your cleaning operation compares to others. 

Mike Sawchuk of Sawchuk Consulting is a leading education and BSC cleaning operations consultant and coach. He assists BSCs and facility management leaders, helping them improve their outcomes with insightful, pragmatic solutions and comprehensive, integrated assessments for cleaning operations. He can be reached at 905-932-6501 or via LinkedIn at Or to learn more about his and his company’s expertise, visit