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Bathroom Innovations

Plus: Best Buys in Standard, Whirlpool & Accessible Bathtubs, Sinks, Toilets, Faucets, Showerheads, Medicine Cabinets & Vanities

Manufacturers added self-cleaning, sanitizing and hands-free features to their bathroom products to help you to combat germs. However, experts say manufacturers’ efforts are misguided and, in some cases, unnecessary.

Kohler

Because manufacturers center their innovations—and their marketing—on germ-fighting, shopping for bathroom fixtures might make your skin crawl. However, Donna Duberg, who is the vice chairwoman of department of biomedical laboratory science at Saint Louis University’s Doisy College of Health Sciences, says you should fear a long list of things more than the microorganisms that are in your bathroom.

“Even if you get perfectly clean in the bathtub,” Duberg says, “the minute you step out of it, you’re picking germs up from the air, from your clothes” as well as potentially from every item and surface that you touch, from the bathroom to the front door.

Duberg and two other biological scientists say microorganisms are unavoidable, no matter how hands-free or self-cleaning that we make our bathrooms. However, they also say we shouldn’t worry about it, because our body is equipped to deal with those organisms. As long as you keep your bathroom reasonably clean and wash your hands after each visit, then you have nothing to fear in the bathroom.

Nonetheless, the march toward “germ-free” bathrooms has intensified—via hands-free faucets, fully automatic toilets and bathtubs that have water purifiers.

AUTOMATIC LUXURY. In a December 2016 press release, Bill Strang, who is manufacturer Toto’s president of operations and e-commerce, says the company’s advertising for its fully automatic ultrapremium toilets was aimed partly at “American society’s obsession with cleanliness and hygiene.” All of Toto’s toilets provide a hands-free experience, because they flush automatically and have powered lids that open and close automatically. Those toilets sell for between $3,120 and $10,200.

Toto isn’t the only manufacturer that makes products that are geared toward luxury-minded “germaphobes.” During the past 3 years, manufacturers increased the number of ultrapremium hands-free toilets that cost at least $3,100 to 27 models from 11 previously.

However, one such technology that you don’t have to pay ultrapremium prices to get your hands on (or hands off) is touch-free flushing. American Standard and Kohler now have models that allow you to flush the toilet by waving a hand over an area of the water tank. Kohler’s Cimarron Elongated Touchless Toilet starts at $374. American Standard’s Studio Activate starts at $635.

(In addition, Kohler has a kit that adds hands-free capability to most canister- and flapper-style toilets for $67.)

In September 2016, American Standard brought self-cleaning capability to the mainstream market when it introduced its ActiClean toilet. ActiClean ($695) uses liquid that’s in a cartridge to clean the bowl. When you press a button, a Quick Clean mode releases the liquid and flushes the toilet after 1 minute; a Deep Clean mode dispenses twice as much of the solution, which sits for 10 minutes before the toilet flushes, to provide a longer, more concentrated cleaning, American Standard says. According to a representative for American Standard, the ActiClean cleaning solution contains “surfactants used in soaps and detergents, plus a foaming agent to coat the bowl as it cleans.”

Anthony Trombetta, who is an environmental-services and janitorial-sanitation expert, tells Consumers Digest that he’s skeptical of how well such a formula will clean your toilet when it relies solely on the toilet’s flushing mechanism to generate agitation. In other words, you should expect to have to get out the scrub brush at least occasionally. Meanwhile, he also warns that, although such a formula is capable of cleaning, it won’t sanitize your toilet properly. For that, you’ll have to use a separate (sanitizing) cleaner.

ActiClean is powered by four AA batteries, which the company says should last for about a year. It comes with one cleaner cartridge that lasts 9 weeks (based on one quick-clean cycle and one deep-clean cycle per week). Replacement cartridges start at about $10. No other manufacturer tells us that it has a self-cleaning toilet in the works.

Of course, from a contamination perspective, the worst scenario with a toilet is an overflow. Mansfield and Penguin Toilets both make toilets that have small holes that are located under the toilet rim to allow water to drain past a blocked trapway instead of to overflow onto the floor. As of press time, the least expensive model that has overflow protection was Penguin’s 524, at $139.