Handwashing Decreases Despite H1N1 Flu Scare

Handwashing: Is it something YOU do?

Today is Global Handwashing Day! But new studies show that despite the media hype and social scare surrounding H1N1 and this season's flu - handwashing has decreased among both men and women.

Washing our hands is the #1 way to limit our exposure to germs via the pathways we usually become contaminated (touching our germ-filled hands to our face/eyes/mouth). But at this week's Science of Infectious Disease meeting, the American Society for Microbiology reported that they found 33% of men and 12% of women left public restrooms without washing their hands. This lack of handwashing has increased from 25% of men and 10% of women in 1999. The overall rate of handwashing sits right at 77% according to the ASM -- a significant difference from the 92% of people who report that they wash their hands after using the bathroom.

Researchers for the American Society for Microbiology did not use cameras above sinks as studies in the past have done. Instead, to monitor handwashing behavior, researchers hung out in bathrooms in four major U.S. cities (New York, San Fransisco, Chicago, and Atlanta) and watched as people came and left, washed, or did not wash, their hands. During the month of September, more than 6,000 people were observed and the ASM discovered a 6% decrease in handwashing from 10 years ago.

The research firm, Harris Interactive, polled 1,001 people via telephone during the month of August 2009 and found:

78% report handwashing after eating/preparing food

74% after changing a diaper

42% after petting an animal

34% after coughing or sneezing

25% after handling money

These findings are relatively the same as the last Harris Interactive handwashing polls conducted in 2003 and 2005.

However, Val Curtis, a hygiene specialist at the London School of Hygeine, says that these figures are certainly exaggerated. She says polling people on their handwashing practices is, "a waste of time - they just say 'yes.'"

Curtis' team of researchers recorded handwashing behavior of a quarter million people at rest stops and found that only 32% of men and 65% of women washed their hands after using the restroom. For this study, cameras were not used, and research teams were not 'spying' in bathrooms. Instead, online sensors were places on soap dispensers that monitored persons coming and going from the bathroom, as well as whether or not soap was dispensed.

Curtis reports that the primary goal of these studies is to discover ways we can increase handwashing behavior. About 2 million children die every year due to diarrheal infections and research demonstrates at least 1/2 of these deaths are prevented with proper soap/water handwashing.

In a search for strategies that would lead to better handwashing, Curtis' team placed signs above restroom entrances and sinks. Signs included phrases such as:

Don't Be a Dirty Soap-Dodger

Soap It Off or Eat It Later

Water Doesn't Kill Germs - Soap Does

Apparently, men are not phased by germ reminders - their handwashing did not increase with the above signs. Women, on the other hand, DID increase their handwashing (by 10%) after reading these signs. The sign that led to the highest increase in handwashing among both women and men read:

Is the Person Next to You Washing With Soap?

Apparently a little old fashioned social desirability-- and the thought that someone may be watching -- does more to increase handwashing than the real threat of germs and illness ever has. With the signs, handwashing increased to 75% of women and 42% of men. Results from the London School of Hygeine study have been published in the American Journal of Public Health.

For a fun and lighthearted, yet research-based look at handwashing and other effective practices to ward off this season's flu and other illnesses, check out the book, The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and the Flu.


  1. Kind of disturbing. Makes me not want to shake hands with anyone!

  2. Now in 2011 I've heard experts say, "you don't really need to wash your hands unless they start smelling bad." I don't fully agree with that but I don't feel the need to always wash my hands. Those who always wash their hands risk weakening their immune system. Take a look at this article from an infectious disease website with good hand washing recommendations: http://www.infectiousdiseasenews.com/article.aspx?id=77739



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