Social media is flooded with beautiful hotel bathtubs. With views overlooking the city, or in the heart of the jungle, or even filled with flowers in Bali, it’s easy to get swept up in bathtub wanderlust. And while I often fall victim to these images, one thing always pulls me back to reality: the idea that these tubs, while beautiful, are likely disgusting.
My interest in hotel bathtubs began two summers ago, when I was in Alaska. In the small town of Valdez, I checked into my hotel, and noticed a sign, with a little fish on it, perched atop the front desk. In a computer-generated cursive font, it read “Please Do Not Process Fish in the Bathtub.”
At first, I thought it was a gag—I had spent so much time around silly signs like that in gift shops that I didn’t think much of it. But a few minutes later, the front desk manager pushed a contract printed on formal letterhead in front of me. It was an agreement, promising that I wouldn’t clean, gut, or store any fish I caught in the mini fridge or in the bathtub of my hotel room.
I signed immediately and never went anywhere near the bathtub during my stay.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about “normal” hotel bathtubs (read: hotel bathtubs not near fishing spots). Are they filled with germs? Are they gross? And, perhaps most importantly, if they are dirty, is it potentially dangerous to take a bath?
It turns out, it’s difficult to say how dirty these tubs are. One study suggests that many bathtubs have a biofilm that only comes off with intense scrubbing. Another study found that 81% of surfaces sampled in hotels had fecal matter — suggesting that perhaps bathtubs aren’t the grossest thing in your hotel room. Another suggested leaving your luggage in the hotel bathtub to avoid bed bugs because “they prefer dark crevices where they can hide properly,” and these are unlikely to be found in a bathroom.
Then, there’s the category of wellness tubs and pools. In 2010, a woman died from a disease she contracted in a wellness hot tub. Between 2000 and 2014, hotel pools were cited as the most frequent locations for chlorine-resistant bacteria infections, according to the CDC.
Despite research on ways to improve hygienic practices in hotels, one can’t help but be concerned about unchlorinated hotel bathtubs, if chlorinated pools pose such a problem.
Naturally, the debate on whether or not to soak has boiled over to TikTok, with hundreds of videos and comments, ranging from “y’all are really getting in hotel bathtubs?” to “I’m not comfortable sleeping on the beds you guys are taking baths?” to a rogue conspiracy theory about Whitney Houston avoiding bathtubs (that is worth watching if you’re a fan).
Maddie Mooney, a 25 year old from Cleveland, Ohio, says that bathtubs are one of, if not the most disgusting spots in a hotel room. Her hotel bathtub phobia began after a particular stay in a hotel where the towels had a “gross, brown, amber like stain on them.” She mentioned she’s stayed in several hotels where the bathtub would “backflood with gross, off color water,” or where she could see “mold in the grout, or grime and dirt still present, and sometimes even a hair or two.”
Mooney didn’t want to give up baths for good. After all, a bath can be a relaxing part of a vacation. She turned to Amazon for a solution and found one: bathtub liners.
She playfully calls them “tub condoms,” in her video, and they work as you’d expect them to. The plastic sheets just cover the bathtub, allowing water to fill the plastic, so you and the water never touch the physical tub.
“When you think about it, the water’s clean, so you just need something to cover the bottom and sides of the bathtub,” she tells me.
There’s another problem, though. Many hotel bathtubs, at least the ones worth spending time in, are much closer to hot tubs. They come with rocketing jets that massage your back, and melt away the pain of a long day.
TikTok is filled with videos of water gurgling from these jets and turning brown, as well as guests taking matters into their own hands. Some have tried spraying the jets with cleaning solution before filling it up, while others have resorted to a more intense method. Think of it as a bath bomb that cleans the tub instead of you: Guests are instead turning up the jets and adding a dishwasher tablet to the bath to clean their hotel tubs before using them.
Margaret Bienert, 32, from Los Angeles, has never gone this far. She’s a travel influencer, whose niche is adult-only hotels, and has stayed in some pretty spectacular looking hotel bathtubs — from one particularly intriguing champagne coupe tub to a plethora of heart-shaped tubs across the country.
Recently, she posted a video encouraging others to overcome gross bathtubs. She admits that at first when they started staying in these hotels and using the tubs she was more careful than she is today. In her experience as a hotel maid, she admits they barely spent any time cleaning the bathtubs.
Bienert recalls one room she stayed in where the person before them must have had a spray on tan. “There was just a brown film when I turned the water on in the bath, and it reminded me of showering with spray on tanner,” she says.
And yet despite these experiences, Bienert remains optimistic about hotel bathtubs. “We’re going to a lot of sexy hotels, where a lot of the tubs are seeing a lot of activity. I asked a doctor how worried I should be about catching a disease,” she says. According to Bienert, the doctor said it would be “shocking” if that was how she contracted an STD.
One study asserts that there is no harm in hotel bathtubs, even if they are gross. They just recommend not drinking the water. And experts agree here. Erica Hartmann, an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University told the Daily Beast that “When you first get into a hotel room, there are probably microbes left over from the last guest to stay there. But the longer you’re in the room, the more the room’s microbes reflect your own.”
Hartmann added that despite the fact that there are microbes despite regular cleaning, they likely aren’t worth worrying about too much: “The most important thing to remember is that the vast majority of microbes will not make you sick,” she said.
Perhaps, if these dirty bathtubs won’t make you actually sick, then Bienert’s final words are worth living by: “It’s how you frame it,” she says, “You can either be grossed out by people doing nasty stuff or you can be the one doing nasty stuff yourself.”