In the restroom, cleanliness is often all a matter of perspective. People rely on their senses to determine whether surfaces look or feel clean. More often, though, people use their nose to judge cleanliness and odors can be deceiving.

"I tell my people, 'It can't just look clean, it has to be clean,'" says Dan Wilson, support services manager at Cushing Regional Hospital in Cushing, Okla. A scent of cinnamon or citrus, no matter how fresh it is, is not the equivalent of a truly clean restroom.

Ed Vizvarie, director of facilities at HowardCenter in Burlington, Vt., is on the same page with that sentiment.

"I don't like going into restrooms that smell like a rose garden; that tells me there is a problem," he says. "The right type of bathroom is one that has no smell at all."

Experts agree that the cleanliness and odor of a restroom is what makes or breaks a facility's reputation. With that in mind, cleaning professionals must trust their noses and eyes when tending to these areas.

What's That Smell?

"The number one cause of restroom odor is urine: absolutely," says Vizvarie. No matter the type of facility, "there's a tendency for restroom patrons to miss the toilets. Sometimes it's even intentional."

Urine left to dry on and around fixtures will attract bacteria, which can lead to foul odors. This is the main cause of odor concerns for Wilson's 95-bed facility, especially in the hospital's male restrooms. He sometimes wishes he could post a sign in these areas similar to the one his wife displays in their home: "I aim to please. You aim, too, please."

But urine isn't the only cause of restroom odors. One of the worst causes of odor that David DeLashmutt notices is when a floor drain trap dries out.

"It lets up a sewer gas, or you'll get something growing in there and it starts to smell," says DeLashmutt, assistant facilities operation manager at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

To combat odors, drains are targeted daily as his staff cleans the 32 large restrooms on the dormitory floors, in addition to another half-dozen public restrooms. DeLashmutt also notes that if not cleaned properly, the bases of toilets can be a major problem area. Moisture can build up, causing bacteria to grow under the edge of fixtures where the base meets the floor.  

Odors that stem from bacteria can build up over time, but a more immediate odor-causing culprit is also much more visible: garbage. Patrons will toss everything from food or beverages to personal hygiene products, all of which can cause major odor problems. To reduce odors, experts stress the importance of cleaning waste receptacles consistently, making sure the bags are replaced and containers thoroughly disinfected.

No matter the problem, there are ways to combat odor issues before they become a setback to a facility's public perception.

JENNIFER BRADLEY is a freelance writer based in East Troy, Wis.