What The Hell Is That Orange Stuff In My Toilet?

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Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Check the Squalor Archive for assistance. Are you still dirty? Email her.

I cannot get rid of the orange-ish lines in my toilet bowl where the water runs down and where it sits. I have tried Kaboom and Ajax with bleach, but the lines remain. Do you have a recommendation?

I have recommendations, but you’re not going to like them. I mean, maybe you will—who am I to act as if I know your mind? But I suspect that you will not like them.

The reason I think you won’t like what I have to say today is that that orange-ish stuff, which sometimes is described as “that pink-ish stuff,” is properly known as Serratia marcescens. Which is a slightly terrifying name for a pretty banal substance: It’s a bacteria, but it’s a fairly harmless one. If all of that has you feeling good, here’s the bad news: You can’t get rid of it such that it never comes back.


I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you so. Will you forgive me?

The problem with eliminating it completely is that it thrives on water and other stuff commonly found in bathrooms, like soap. If some of this sounds familiar to you, it’s because we’ve talked about S. marcescens before, as part of a broader discussion of common bathroom lurkers like mold and mildew.


As frustrating as it is to know that there’s not a magic toilet wand that you can wave to forever rid your home of S. marcescens—and that regular cleaning is the only solution—take comfort in the fact that the cleanup here is a painless endeavor. And it does involve a wand! Of sorts: You need a toilet brush, and a bacteria-eliminating cleaner. Something with bleach, like Tilex, will be just grand, but if you dislike bleach, my old friend white vinegar is a lovely alternative, as is tea tree oil, which has all manner of antibacterial properties. I’m unclear as to why the Ajax didn’t touch the problem, given that it has bleach, so I’m not sure what to tell you about why it didn’t work. I feel okay admitting that, here, among friends.

I also feel okay admitting that when I was looking up the correct rendering of S. marcescens, I came across the following section of the bacteria’s Wikipedia article and dorked the fuck out when I saw that there’s a section entitled, “Possible role in medieval miracles,” because I never met a medieval miracle I didn’t love. How cool is this??

Because of its red pigmentation, caused by expression of the pigment prodigiosin, and its ability to grow on bread, S. marcescens has been evoked as a naturalistic explanation of medieval accounts of the “miraculous” appearance of blood on the Eucharist that led to Pope Urban IV instituting the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. This followed celebration of a mass at Bolsena in 1263, led by a Bohemian priest who had doubts concerning transubstantiation, or the turning of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass. During the Mass, the Eucharist appeared to bleed, and each time the priest wiped away the blood, more would appear. While Serratia possibly could generate a single appearance of red pigment, it is unclear how it could have generated more pigment after each wiping, leaving this proposed explanation open to doubt. This event is celebrated in a fresco in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican City, painted by Raphael.


Now then, since Serratia marcescens is a thing we’ve talked about before, you may be wondering why I’m revisiting it today. There are two reasons, the first of which is just that people keep asking. Which is totally fine! I really do not mind. The second, and more honest, reason that I wanted to take on the topic again is that I want an excuse to link to the Sweethome’s investigation of the best toilet brushes. Partly because it’s possibly the most thorough investigation of toilet brushes in the history of toilet-brush investigations, and partly because I was an expert source for the piece and spent 90 incredibly rousing minutes on the telephone talking toilet brushes with the author. That probably doesn’t sound like a great time to you, but for me, well! It was heaven. I hope you enjoy reading about toilet brushes as much as I enjoyed talking about them.

That seems unlikely, but hope always lurks in the heart of a Clean Person.

Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume); more of her cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found onTwitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.


Illustration by Sam Woolley.

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