You probably don't remember who taught you how to wipe — your parents, most likely — or why you wipe the way you do. All you know is that once you were settled in on one style of wiping that worked, more or less, there was no real reason to change. But is it the right way? Is it the best way? Let's find out.Photos by Sorin Popa/Shutterstock
How it's done now
From what I gather, the two major schools of wiping are front-to-back, with your arm reaching behind you from the side, or back-to-front, with your arm between your legs. There's also another method, where it's not exactly front-to-back/back-to-front, but more of a swirling motion, as if you were cleaning a dirty spot on a window. I've never actually seen this in practice, but to be fair, the number of times I've witnessed any of these methods executed can be counted on one hand. (And I wash that hand afterwards.)
The right way
Dr Curtis Asbury, says that the method of wiping your buttocks depends heavily on what companion equipment you have in the area. If you're a guy, "do whatever feels right. It makes no difference. Heck, you can go side to side if you like!" But on the other hand, the conventional wisdom among women (which apparently isn't so conventional for some) says that front-to-back is the way to go to avoid urinary tract infections. Not so fast ladies!
The thought is that when you wipe from back to front, you are moving fecal material towards the vagina and thus the urethra. Bacteria gets in the urethra, travels up to the bladder, and soon enough you got a UTI brewing. Unfortunately, despite this elegant theory, it simply hasn't proven itself in the scientific literature. According to the evidence in multiple studies, it doesn't matter which way you wipe. That being said, which way would I wipe if I were a woman? You better believe I'm wiping front to back!
Dr Brian Bowes agrees on the direction.
The majority of cases of cystitis or urethritis are from E. coli, the normal flora that lives in your gastrointestinal tract. This helps you digest your food, but if you wipe from back to front you risk smearing it to your urethral meatus (pee hole). Then the bacteria get into a sterile environment [your pee hole]and cause a UTI. This was traditionally taught in medical school to be "Honeymoon cystitis" as many women would get UTIs after their vigorous honeymoon weekend and come back with this normal infection. Maybe we see less of this these days with premarital sex and living together.
As for men..
...most have at least 6 inches (hopefully) between their anus and urethral meatus (opening at the end of their penis). Although some women might contend this, this protects them from urinary tract infections. Therefore anyone with a penis that they pee out of (not to exclude any sexes) is protected from E. coli and may feel free to wipe in whichever way that pleases them (not that it should be pleasurable).
Dr Chris Lowry concurs with the other docs, and says that the studies that have been done in this area are small, and thus, not very reliable. Here are three relevant studies.
• One study of wiping after passing urine, showed a small increase in infection when wiping back-to-front.
• However, another study on college age women with UTIs showed that there was no increase.
• A final one looking at how frequently women had a second or third UTI also showed no increase.
Dr Asbury says that beyond cleaning up a mess after a mess is made, you should focus on general hygiene, you know, for kicks.
Moisture in the groin can lead to irritation, known as intertrigo, or a yeast infection. Recent attempts at ultra-cleanliness have lead to a trend of using moist wipes rather than dry toilet paper to wipe. The main problem with this is the growing sensitivity to chemicals in the moist wipes. An allergy to these chemicals can cause pain, irritation, and redness which often causes the person to use the wipes more, and thus perpetuating the problem. The main chemical associated with moist wipe allergy is methylchloroisothiazolinone/methylisothiazolinone (MCI/MI or Kathon CG) although other common allergens in wipes include quaternium-15, iodopropynyl butylcarbamate, DMDM hydantoin, and fragrances. Use moist wipes at your own risk, and at the very least, read the label!
Alternatives to wiping
So if there's no reason to use moist chemical wipes, is there anything better than the traditional two-ply? If you guessed bidets, you'd be right, and you've probably used one before. But Dr Lowry points out something interesting about long-term usage that I've never heard before.
Japanese toilets often contain a water jet and blow dryer that cleans the anus for you. Apparently, some Japanese doctors are now claiming to be seeing cases of "Washlet Syndrome", where cleaning that is too effective leads to problems such as weak sphincter muscles, dry skin and anal sores.
He wasn't able to find any English-language studies on the subject, and wasn't able to locate any Japanese ones either (he's more familiar with medicine than he is with the Japanese language). But, in my own anecdotal opinion, a cleansing spurt of water before following up with traditional toilet paper gets things incredibly clean. And it's refreshing.
If you're a DIY-er, you might be wondering what other things you can wipe with. Dr Asbury points to this man, who experimented on himself with such items as "dried corncob, rocks, newspaper, leaves and vinegar on a sponge. Whilst his experimental methods leave much to be desired, it's an entertaining read!"
Alternatives to traditional toilets
Pulling back one level from wiping, Dr Lowry points out that squat toilets — the type you see in some Asian countries, might be healthier. But this could be also attributed to a high-fibre diet, rather than the method of evacuation. But unless you're currently remodelling your house, or really have an issue with haemorrhoids, it's unlikely that you will swap out your current waste depository with a squatter.
Acknowledgements and what I've learned
Tremendous thanks to our three doctors, from which I have learned four very important things. First, that I've been wiping correctly. Second, that I should be glad I am male (for the purposes of wiping). Third, I should really finish installing my bidet so I don't have to use so much toilet paper, but also make sure that when I do, I still keep up on my sphincter muscle exercises. Four, that the term urinary meatus means pee hole.
Dr Brian N. Bowes is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, lives in Sicily, fathered five children and works for the Navy. He's also an avid Lifehacker reader, barista and motorcyclist.
Do it right is a section where we explore common activities that we all think we're doing correctly, but might not be. And if you know someone who insists that they're doing something right, feel free to pass this along to show them what the experts say.