Mind & Body

How Gross Are the Hot Tubs in Hotels, Really?

When you need to take some time off just to relax, getting out of town for a bit usually does the trick. There's a tried-and-true stress reliever awaiting you at nearly any hotel you'll check into: the hot tub. Soaking away in a steamy, bubbly pool will do wonders for your peace of mind — unless you stop to consider what else might be swimming around in it.

Hot Tub Rash Machine

Swimming pools are kinda gross. They're filled with all sorts of organic compounds like sweat, lotion, sunscreen, and urine, which mix with the chlorine to create "disinfection byproducts" that can irritate the skin, eyes, and the respiratory tract. It's not pretty. But for as grimy as large swimming pools are, hot tubs present a much greater bacteria risk. "There are certain types of microorganisms that seem to proliferate in them," Aaron Glatt, chair of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital and spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America, tells TONIC.

Although you probably — scratch that, definitely — don't rinse off before winding down in the hotel's hot tub, you probably should. The warm water opens up your pores, and all the dirt, oil, and dead skin cells that may have been lurking beneath the surface are released. Which sounds great, until you realize that the gunk from other people is also swimming around in that steamy water — and your pores are open for business. "It can lead to a lot of superficial skin infections," Glatt says. "You don't really see that in colder water." One such infection, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, is so common in the steamy soaks that it's known as "hot tub rash." The steam can even get some nasty stuff into your system through your mouth too (sorry).

Look Before You Leap

Now that we've sufficiently ruined your appetite, we're going to pull up on the reins a bit. Sure, there is a lot of gross stuff that could be swimming around in the public hot tub of that highway-access budget inn. But you'll probably be fine. Hot tubs aren't cesspools by necessity — it's quite possible to maintain a clean, healthy hot tub as long as you understand that they require different care than a regular swimming pool. Even if there are some bacteria and other detritus in there, it's likely nothing that a healthy immune system can't handle.

If you're still iffy about the state of your hotel's tub, though, you can do a couple of things. Check online to see the inspection reports for a particular public pool and hot tub from the local health department. You can also carry pool test strips with your travel stuff and test the water. For hot tubs, you'll want to see numbers close to what the CDC recommends: a pH level of 7.2 to 7.8, free chlorine concentration of at least three parts per million, and free bromine concentration of at least four ppm. Use your common sense too; if it looks cloudy or dirty, skip it.

Want more water science? Check out Wallace J. Nichols' book "Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Joanie Faletto June 27, 2018

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