It’s no secret that Americans have a serious toilet paper habit — the U.S. spent $9.6 billion as a country on TP alone in 2014, according to business research companyEuromonitor.
Even though we apparently can’t get enough of the fluffy stuff, the rest of the world doesn’t share our obsession. Bidets, a.k.a. basins used to wash a person’s privates, are the method of choice for freshening up in bathrooms in Europe, Asia, and South America. Bidets are environmentally friendly and cost-efficient—and both of those labels are popular with American consumers. So why aren’t bidets more popular in the States?
According to sociologist Harvey Molotoch, author of Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, we got off on the wrong foot with bidets and just never recovered. He says we owe our overall aversion to bidets to our country’s forefathers: The British associated bidets with French prostitutes, and consequently thumbed their noses at their use. Over time, it became a habit to wipe instead of wash after using the bathroom, and it never went away.
Although bidets can be found in some upscale U.S. homes, Molotoch points out that our culture still considers bathroom activities to be a taboo topic, which hampers the potential growth of the bidet industry. “We can’t talk much about it in polite company, so they can’t be easily marketed,” he says.
But marketing issues aside, urologist David M. Kaufman, MD, says using a bidet just might be healthier for us: “It’s definitely preferable to toilet paper” — for women, at least. While the wash basin has “little value” for healthy men, he says bidet use can have a big impact on the urinary health of women.
Here’s why: Bacteria, which are the source of urinary tract infections, are found within the vagina. Toilet paper only cleans the outside of the vagina, not the inside. “It is only through thorough irrigation with a bidet or hand-held shower stream that these bacteria can be washed out,” he says.
A bidet isn’t just helpful for the genitals: It’s a also a good option for cleaning our rears, says Allen Kamrava, MD, a colorectal surgeon at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. Kamrava’s patients who experience issues in their anal area typically create a bidet to help “normalize” the region. That, he says, indicates that a bidet has a gentler effect than toilet paper.
He also notes that bidets are especially useful for people who have to use the bathroom a lot, like those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. It’s also helpful for people who have had surgery below the belt, and women who have just given birth. Using a bidet as opposed to toilet paper makes it easier to clean “without the trauma of wiping,” he says, which can irritate the skin and even reopen wounds.
Like Kaufman, Kamrava says that a bidet can get things cleaner down there, but he points out that bidets are also good for maintaining the natural oils necessary for optimal anal health. Those oils are more likely to break down if you wipe vigorously or use a soap-and-water combination to clean up, versus a stream of plain water.
While Philip Buffington, MD, chief medical officer at The Urology Group, says that using a bidet provides better personal hygiene, he’s quick to note that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Sometimes it’s better to be a little less clean by using toilet paper. “You need some bacteria,” he says. “Cleaning too frequently can disrupt some of this good bacteria.”
Kamrava agrees. While pro-bidet, he says that people shouldn’t need to choose between using one method or the other to get clean. “Toilet paper has its place, as do bidets,” he says. “For people without major issues, toilet paper is just fine.”