Only 5 percent of us wash hands correctly, research says

Hand washing is the single most effective thing one can do to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Credit: Michigan State University

Remember Mom's advice about washing your hands thoroughly after using the restroom? Apparently not.

A new study by Michigan State University researchers found that only 5 percent of people who used the bathroom washed their hands long enough to kill the germs that can cause infections.

What's more, 33 percent didn't use soap and 10 percent didn't wash their hands at all. Men were particularly bad at washing their hands correctly.

The study, based on observations of 3,749 people in , appears in the Journal of Environmental Health.

"These findings were surprising to us because past research suggested that proper hand washing is occurring at a much higher rate," said Carl Borchgrevink, associate professor of hospitality business and lead investigator on the study.

Hand washing is the single most effective thing one can do to reduce the spread of , according to the . Failing to sufficiently wash one's hands contributes to nearly 50 percent of all

It takes 15 to 20 seconds of vigorous hand washing with soap and water to effectively kill the , the CDC says, yet the study found that people are only washing their hands, on average, for about 6 seconds.

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A study by Michigan State University researchers found that only 5 percent of people who used the bathroom washed their hands long enough to kill the germs that can cause infections. Credit: Michigan State University

Borchgrevink and colleagues trained a dozen college students in data collection and had them observe hand washing in restrooms in bars, restaurants and other public establishments. The student researchers were as unobtrusive as possible – by standing off to the side and entering results on a smart phone, for example.

The study is one of the first to take into account factors such as duration of the hand washing and whether people used soap.

Specific findings include:

  • Fifteen percent of men didn't wash their hands at all, compared with 7 percent of women.
  • When they did wash their hands, only 50 percent of men used soap, compared with 78 percent of women.
  • People were less likely to wash their hands if the sink was dirty.
  • Hand washing was more prevalent earlier in the day. Borchgrevink said this suggests people who were out at night for a meal or drinks were in a relaxed mode and hand washing became less important.
  • People were more likely to wash their hands if a sign encouraging them to do so was present.

Borchgrevink, who worked as a chef and restaurant manager before becoming a researcher, said the findings have implications for both consumers and those who operate restaurants and hotels.

"Imagine you're a business owner and people come to your establishment and get foodborne illness through the fecal-oral route – because people didn't wash their hands – and then your reputation is on the line," he said. "You could lose your business."

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User comments

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Jun 10, 2013
The problem is that in the restroom, when you have three or four people waiting to use the sink, you don't really have 20 seconds to "vigorously" scrub hands. The issue isn't so much what people do or don't know, but what is socially accepted.
Jun 10, 2013
In the military the jape was - what are you washing your hands for, 'that' should be the cleanest part of your body! That said, I have become a chlorhexidine fan.
Jun 10, 2013
A completely touch free hand washing fixture would be great. One that dispensed soapy water with one gesture, rinse water with another and blow dry with a third gesture. Or the sequence could be preset ...
Jun 11, 2013
My understanding is the point of washing (and using soap) is not particularly to kill germs, but to wash any newly introduced ones off your skin. If you try for some process that sterilizes your skin, you invite undesirable side effects.

I'm curious as to where that "50 % of foodborne illness" figure comes from. And if that implies efforts should be concentrated in situations involving food handlers.

I agree with marble89. Touch free is important. Including stall doors and restroom doors.

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