How to Clean Up After a Toilet Overflows

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Dear Home Ec 101,
So, twice this has happened lately thanks to little girls who don’t always flush when they’re supposed to. I have all the towels to mop up the water and um mess, from the toilet overflow itself. Then I have to wash the towels, floor, and toilet. And then I feel the need to run a bleach cycle in the washing machine, just in case. And I also feel like after mopping the floor I need to disinfect the floor. Then I want to disinfect the mop. So this is a big annoying process. What are your thoughts on these unpleasant messes?
Flustered in Flushing

clean bathroom florr

Dear Flustered in Flushing,

Properly washing your hands with soap and water is just as effective as washing with antimicrobial soap. It’s not the Triclosan that gets your hands clean; it’s the soap bringing the germs into the water, where they are then rinsed away.

When cleaning, even very germy things, the same principle applies.

Unless someone in your house has a compromised immune system -I’m talking about a baby that has been in the NICU, an elderly relative, chemo patients, etc. There is no need to go crazy with disinfection in the bathroom. In general, the act of cleaning takes care of almost everything. The act of washing your hands properly after using the toilet and before preparing food takes care of the rest.

Does this mean I don’t recommend thoroughly cleaning your bathroom after a sewage backup?

Heck no.

I mean, it’s not quite as necessary to do as many disinfecting steps as you’re undertaking.

Regular bathroom cleaning is sufficient in most households when there hasn’t been a sewage backup. Everyday use is one thing; fecal matter is a special case.

If you mop the floor thoroughly using your favorite soap and water, you’ll get up just about every germ. Rinse your mop and the bucket thoroughly, and then go back over with a mild bleach solution (Read How to Use Bleach Safely). The act of disinfecting the floor will also disinfect the mop and the bucket simultaneously. The germs, like e. Coli or staph, will be killed while they are cleaned up.

PAY ATTENTION: The first step of getting rid of as much organic matter (the actual dirt, grime, or filth) is the most important one.

As far as the towels, again, the soap and water situation works here, too. Just wash the towels by themselves, on the hottest cycle, with the longest agitation possible. (Still use the large load setting, you want as much water flow as possible.) Then, add 2 TBSP of bleach to the wash water about five minutes into the agitation cycle.

bathroom cleaning
Tips to keep your bathroom squeaky clean!

I’m assuming you’re not using your guest towels to clean up toilet water, right? This is the same method recommended to clean flood-contaminated clothing. It is adequate for your needs, as well. If you’re still feeling skeeved, run a cycle to wash your clothes washer, but that is probably overkill.

Also, it’s not just girls; I’m fighting the same battle with my boys. Remember last week’s post on how to use a plunger? I’ve been getting a fair amount of practice here, too.

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21 thoughts on “How to Clean Up After a Toilet Overflows”

  1. Hot water in the washing machine isn't hot enough to kill e.coli. Actually, bacteria thrive at hot water heater temps- 120-140 degrees.

    Using bleach and a very hot dryer will, and drying items in full sunlight will also disinfect them.

  2. My regular bathroom cleaning approach probably will deal with it, assuming the floor isn't carpeted (eww!!!!!). After cleaning the hard surfaces with detergent and water, I spray everything down with Lysol, let it sit for a couple of minutes, and then wipe dry with a ratty but clean towel that goes straight back into the wash. I do this weekly on every hard surface, and I never have any odors or mildew.

  3. I would just like to reassure the OP on this that she is not the only parent who has children who seem to be incapable of flushing the toilet properlty… it is a constant battle with my girls (read "did you flush the toilet" "Yes" "no you didn't I didn't hear it flush, go flush again" kind of thing)…

    We get overflows… what I do is mop up the worst of the spill with old towells that I don't worry about using bleach on. declog the toilet and then mop up again (more old towels!) then once the toilet is running well I give it a good clean and I use some kind of floor cleaner to give the floor and surrounding area the once over…mostly the stuff I would use for my weekly floor cleaning in the bathrooms tbh… (I like pinesol cos of the smell!!)

    And finally, the towells used for the mopping up process are put on a hot wash with bleach and the mop gets rinsed in a fresh bucket of hot water and pinesol ( or similar) to clean it.

  4. Perhaps more of a problem for baby clothes, but I wash things that have been pooped on in cold water first, then in hot water. Hitting poop stains with heat will set the stain, since like with blood, the staining part of poop is the iron in it.

    But, I do keep a stack of old towels for the dog and worse, and they all pick up rust stains from the radiators anyway, so I don't fuss over them.

  5. Thanks for this information! I found this due to my own little girl’s overflow 🙁 that I’m about to have to clean! I’m a germaphobe like the original asker and this article may help put me at ease.

    I’m very curious about your response to another comment (about vinegar). I’m going to google it to see if I can find it. 🙂

    Also, she was especially disappointed about her (colorful) bath mat getting toilet water on it! Any way to sanitize/save it?!

  6. I am freaking out right now! I have OCD and my toilet just overflowed and leaked into the kitchen. I mopped everything up with towels, etc, and cleaned the bathroom as I normally would (regular cleaner). I any clean the kitchen until the ceiling stops dripping (toilet water leaked through the bathroom vent into the kitchen below). Add to this the fact that Ido t have bleach on hand (and prefer natural methods) and my washer is only hooked up to cold water. AND… When the incident happened the whole family raced to the bathroom and tracked through the “water” then proceeded down the carpeted hall and stairs back into the kitchen. Waaaaaah. Aside from the ick factor is my family/visitors in danger? I will wash the kitchen floors tomorrow with water, vinegar and dish soap but do I need to worry about all the cross contamination that went on tonight? Freaking out!

    • Just encourage your family to practice extra-good hand washing. Everything will be fine. They are aware the toilet overflowed and probably kind of grossed out, too. It’s going to be fine.
      In a couple years, I promise this will be one of those things where someone will say, “Remember the time the Jones family came over and Frank clogged the toilet?” (Worse if it was Mary). It just takes a while to get to the point you can laugh at it. Toilet overflows happen to everyone, especially in homes with children, as I’m not sure why children can’t understand that if they are having trouble getting clean they can flush and then return to the situation at hand, but. . .
      You aren’t alone. Hang in there.

    • OMGosh, I Just had he same thing happen to us early this AM, complete with husband and I having to track back and forth from upstairs down to the kitchen where the toilet water was leaking from the ceiling onto the kitchen counter top and floor and sink. I have been Googling articles for about an hour looking up if I can clean the kitchen sink with antibacterial Dawn (which is what my husband did, and says it will be fine- I would use bleach) and I’m convinced I will get either staph, e.coli or the dreaded MRSA. What does it mean on the bottle when it says, “Cleans 99.9 of all bacteria”- what is the 1-% that it doesn’t clean? I’m most worried about the kitchen sink and that “seam” around it gathering and growing germs in there.

  7. My shower backup up from a clogged mainline. I am in an apartment on the bottom floor. The second bath filled halfway with brown water. I poured about 1/2 gallon of bleach in the the standing brown water. Now that it’s all gone I am worried about the gaps on the tile floorboards. I bleached the whole place, but think there is a host of bacteria in the gaps and behind the tile. Now we are all worried about hepatitis A. Clogged waste lines s are horrible;e.

  8. Help!!! I overflowed the toilet on a hardwood floor. How do I clean it up without using bleach. Our floors are terrible and fall apart every time we step. And I only have paper towels to use!!!

    • Make sure the water is shut off. I’m sure there’s an old washcloth, rag, towel, or something somewhere in the home. Use that, in addition to the paper towels. Use the cloth item first to sop up and wring out as much water as possible. Then use the paper towels to finish the job.

      Germs will die without bleach. They are not invincible. You can use white vinegar, but rinse when you are done and let the area dry thoroughly. Just don’t eat off the area and practice impeccable hand hygiene. You will be ok.

  9. Toilet water splashed out on my foot and flip flop when pouring water from my foot bath into the toilet. I immediately grabbed nearby 90% rubbing alcohol and wiped my foot, flip flop and the floor. Did that disinfect or should I wash with soap and water and or use bleach on the floor?

  10. Hi, I’ve had a backup in the bathroom and sewage has come up through the shower and bathroom floor drain, flooding the bathroom! Is this something I can clean up using this method? I’m so grossed out and paranoid about my health. Will this need professional cleaning? Help!

    • Hi Kelsey,

      We are so sorry to hear about your backup! They are just awful. Wash contaminated surfaces/objects with warm, soapy water and disinfect with a bleach/water solution, one tablespoon of chlorine bleach per one gallon water. Discard or properly wash and disinfect toys, clothing, and other contaminated objects.
      Wear rubber boots and gloves during removal/cleanup.

      Make sure to scrub and wash all objects, including clothes, exposed to the backup water.


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