How to use a bidet

The most typical question I get from new arrivals in Italy isn’t “Where can I exchange money?” or “How do I get to the nearest gelato place?” but “What’s that thing next to the toilet in my bathroom? Do Italians really wash their ‘you know what’ in it?” To help demystify this mysterious contraption lurking in an Italian bagno near you, here’s a list of answers to 10 common bidet questions:

Bidet in Florence Italy BathroomThe thing next to your toilet in Italy is a bidet

1. How do you say, “bidet”?

In English: (Bih-DAY) – rhymes with “okay,” hence the wildly clever title of this article. In Italian: (Bee-DEH)

2. What is the main purpose of a bidet?

To clean yourself after going to the bathroom. In Italy, they’re used in addition to, and not in place of, toilet paper.

3. Do bidets have other uses?

Yes. They’re also used for washing after intercourse and, for us fortunate females, sprucing up during “that time of the month.” And, because of their low height, they’re great for shaving your legs or washing your feet. (Walk around a historic Italian city in sandals all day, and you’ll understand the necessity of that last one).

4. Where will I find bidets?

Bidets are common in Southern Europe, and parts of Asia and South America. In Italy, you’ll see bidets in almost every hotel room and private bathroom. Due to their somewhat intimate nature, they aren’t common in public places.

Italian Bidet with water flowThe bidet in action

5. Are there different types of bidets?

Yes. The average bidet in Italy looks and works just like a sink, with an adjustable faucet nozzle that allows you to control the angle of the water stream. Others spray water upwards, like a geyser, from a jet in the bottom of the basin. Some are built right into the toilet, with a little lever nearby to start the water stream. And the kind I avoid is filled with water flowing from the sides of the bowl, which is then splashed onto whatever part you’re washing or even used to “dunk” a little of yourself inside. Although not unlike taking a bath, I believe in full immersion for languages, not bidets.

6. Are bidets hygienic?

Other than maybe that last kind, yes, bidets are extremely sanitary. To put it one way: if a pigeon pooped on your head, would you just wipe it off with a paper towel, or use soap and water?

…the latter all the way, right?

Bidets are basically used to keep yourself extra clean, and they even prevent infections. I promise that, after trying one, you’ll look back on your previous bathroom rituals with mild displeasure. But if you’re still cringing at the thought of sharing a bidet with other people you’re living or vacationing with, let me just remind you that you’re all probably using the same toilet and shower (which isn’t much different). 

7. How do you sit on a bidet?

Depending on which side of you needs attention, either facing away from the controls, like you sit on a toilet, or toward them, like you mount a horse (“bidet” is antiquated French word for “pony”). Giddy up!

8. Do you control the water temperature and pressure?

Usually. In most cases, the bidet will have three knobs: one on the left for hot water, one in the middle for water pressure, and one on the right for cold water. Tip: Be careful in Italy because “c” stands for “calda” (hot), and not the English word, “cold.” Other bidets have a single central control that regulates temperature (side to side) and pressure (up and down). Bidets built into toilets, on the other hand, sometimes have only one lever that turns the stream off and on. In this case you have some control over the pressure, but the temperature is left up to mother nature. 

Detergente intimo Chilly Italian BrandDetergente intimo (intimate cleanser), for bidet use

9. What’s the proper bidet washing technique?

Pretend you’re taking a localized shower: 1) get yourself wet 2) lather up using soap and your hand 3) rinse off. In Italy, you can purchase detergente intimo (intimate cleanser) at most grocery stores and pharmacies. It’s milder than regular soap and pH5 balanced, to preserve your skin’s natural defenses. One of the most popular Italian brands is Chilly, which like its name promises, will leave you feeling pleasantly refreshed.

10. What do I dry myself with?

If you’re at a hotel or in your own bathroom, with your personal, hand-sized towel hanging next to the bidet. If you’re at a friend’s house, with toilet paper. Which brings me to my last point: when in a bathroom in Italy, looking for something to dry your hands or face, don’t reach for the towel near the bidet.

Have you ever said okay to a bidet? Would you try one now?

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…and if you rent a student apartment in Florence, make sure it’s one of ours!

5 reason Why American Don’t Own a Bidet

  1. The English didn’t use bidets. America was once part of England, so it is natural that American society still has many English mores and manners. The bidet was invented in France sometime in the 1700s. The bidet was then enthusiastically adopted by Italians. Before the American Revolution, the English did not commonly use bidets and they still don’t. Americans are like the British in toilet habits.
  2. Americans Don’t Know What a Bidet is. Thirty years ago, if you asked the average American about bidets, they might ask you: “what is a bidet?” and “what is a bidet for?” Even today with the ubiquity of the Internet, many Americans are unfamiliar with bidets.  How can this be? Currently, only 30% of Americans have a passport and the number was far fewer before you needed a passport to travel to Canada and Mexico.  There are many factors that keep Americans from traveling overseas, with the largest factors being lack of paid vacation days and the expense of overseas air travel.  The result is that many Americans have simply never seen or heard of a bidet.  Of those that have traveled overseas, they might not have known what it was, or how to work it.  Stories abound of confused Americans using bidets in all sorts of curious, and often highly inappropriate ways.  No, it is neither a water fountain nor a facial device!
  3. Homes are not Currently Plumbed for Bidets. Before the advent of bidet seats and hand sprayers, installing a bidet was often too expensive, difficult, often impossible due to space issues. Installing a completely new fixture can be expensive, depending on the current layout. New combination toilets/bidets and bidet seat options help alleviate this problem.
  4. Uncomfortable Talking About “Bathroom Stuff”. Talking about a fixture specifically used to wash nether regions after going to the bathroom is a bit too graphic and blunt for American sensibilities.  After all, Americans say “bathroom” or even “restroom” for what other people simply call the “toilet.”  Try asking someone where the toilet is, they might look a bit taken aback. Having a fixture for washing genitals installed in your home can be a daunting idea. Even if some one has heard of bidets, they might be too shy to ask, “how does a bidet work?”
  5. If It’s Not Broke, Don’t Fix It Cleanliness is extremely cultural. What one culture considers dirty, another culture considers clean or normal. Americans learned how to use the bathroom with toilet paper. They grew up using toilet paper. Their mother and father used toilet paper. Toilet paper is “normal.” For most people residing in the Middle East, the idea of using toilet paper and not washing after using the bathroom would be horrendously dirty. For people who live in places like Japan and Italy where bidets are in every home, doing without a bidet is practically barbaric. While using a bidet probably doesn’t sound “dirty” to Americans, it is different. Different can be uncomfortable. What if there is splashing? How do you dry yourself? Using a bidet can seem complicated and uncomfortable if you are not used to it. Everyone learns to use the bathroom as a child; it is kind of weird to learn something new about so intimate and embarrassing a subject as an adult. Basically: if it is not broke, don’t fix it.
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Bidet Seats, AKA Washlets

The Japanese toilet company TOTO invented a combination toilet/bidet called a Washlet in 1980. It is essentially a toilet that sprays water for cleansing. It quickly became popular in Japan. Today the majority of homes in Japan have these toilets and they have more features then ever. Some of these features include sensors that automatically raise and lower the toilet seat, pressure settings, temperature settings, and an air drier. Washlet style bidet seats give you all the benefits of a bidet without taking up additional space or needing new plumbing. You simply need an electrical outlet near the toilet and the seat has a water outlet that you’ll connect with your water supply. You can do it yourself or have a plumber hook it up quickly and cheaply. In addition to TOTO, Kohler also makes a bidet seat.

Bidet Seats, AKA Washlets | Ben Franklin Pluming

Benefits of the Bidet

  • Cleanliness, water cleans better then paper, obviously. Feel fresh from the shower anytime of the day
  • Use less toilet paper, easier on the environment and easier on your home’s plumbing
  • Accessible for elderly and disabled people who might have a difficult time wiping

How to Use a Bidet – Washlet Style Bidet

  1. Use the toilet as normal, and wipe or don’t wipe with toilet paper depending on your needs or preferences.
  2. Use controls to adjust stream placement and temperature.
  3. Enjoy the air dry function of your bidet has it or use some toilet paper or a towel to dry.
  4. Enjoy your day with a clean bum.

How to use a Bidet – Traditional Bidet (Separate Fixture)

  1. Use the toilet as normal, and wipe. You do not need to be perfectly clean, as you’ll be using the bidet, but you should get most everything off.
  2. Check the temperature to make sure you do not scald yourself. Careful, some bidets can be strong, so turn it slowly if you re unfamiliar with the bidet.
  3. Straddle the bidet and turn it on. Get gloriously clean.
  4. Pat dry with a towel or some toilet paper. Dispose of the toilet paper in the toilet, not the bidet.
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The answer to why Americans don’t own bidets can be summed up in two reasons: history and unfamiliarity. Most Americans who have had the opportunity to use bidets or Washlets abroad enjoy the experience of being freshly clean after each trip to the bathroom. New washlet style bidet seats are a convenient way to have the benefits of a bidet without installing a completely new fixture in your home.

More about bathrooms and toilets:


Anyway, I hope you got a good laugh out of my embarrassing story.  Mostly, I hope that you will learn from my story so that the next time you travel abroad and find yourself staring at a bidet, whether you use it or not, you will remember me wiping my face with the wrong towel and remember my bidet advice:

  1. How do you use a bidet? check out this site for a detailed explanation
  2. Test the waters! Some come out like geysers so watch out where the water comes out of and check the water pressure to avoid an unwanted enema.
  3. Pants on or pants off? Depends which way you face!
  4. Work the suds! Yes, there is special soap for your privates and Italians have so many to choose from!
  5. Use your own bidet towel to dry off unless you’re in Japan and you have a dryer
  6. wash your hands
  7. Identify the correct towel to dry your hands!

About the special soap, Italians have the private parts soap down to a science.  Check back next week on my post about the most publicized one: Chilly! Their slogan goes, “nel mio intimo, c’è Chilly” – There’s Chilly in my underwear.

No joke.

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