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Hand Washing Frequency Dips in U.S.

Only 77% Lather Up in Public Restrooms, a 6% Decline From 2005
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 17, 2007 (Chicago) -- Are we becoming a nation of dirty liars?

Researchers who discretely observed men and women in public restrooms found that only 77% washed their hands with soap and water -- a 6% decline from 2005.

But not many people are admitting to slipping up: In a separate telephone survey, 92% of Americans claimed they always lather up in public restrooms.

The findings were reported at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).

Men Blamed for Slipup

The blame lies squarely with the men, says Brian Sansoni, a spokesman at the Soap and Detergent Association, which cosponsored the survey with the ASM.

The percentage of men observed washing their hands fell from 75% in 2005 to 66% in 2007. In contrast, hygiene habits basically stalled among women: 90% washed up in 2005, compared with 88% in 2007.

Why Americans are more complacent than in the past “is the million dollar question,” Sansoni tells WebMD. “But Americans, especially guys, need to step up to the sink.”

(Do you always wash your hands before leaving the restroom? Why or why not? Fess up on WebMD's Health Café message board.)

Chicago: The Cleanest City

For the observational study, the researchers monitored the hand washing habits of 6,076 adults at six public bathrooms in four major cities from Aug. 17 to Aug. 25 of this year. The sites were the same as in the 2005 survey: Atlanta's Turner Field, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium, New York's Penn and Grand Central train stations, and San Francisco's Ferry Terminal Farmers Market.

Among the findings:

  • Chicagoans appeared to have the best hand hygiene: 81% of men and women lathered up. New York followed, with 79% washing up, followed by Atlanta (75%) and San Francisco (73%).
  • Male sports fans have some of the dirtiest hands: Only 57% were observed washing their hands at Turner Field in Atlanta, the lowest figure at any locales.
  • On the other hand, women hit a home run at the home of the Braves: 95% were observed cleaning their hands -- the highest figure at any locale.

Telephone Survey Paints a Different Picture

For the telephone survey, 1,001 men and women were asked about their hand washing habits both in public restrooms and at home.

Among those findings:

  • 86% said they always wash up after using the bathroom at home. In 2005, that figure stood at 83%.
  • Nearly 3/4 (73%) said they always wash their hands after changing a diaper -- the same as two years ago. Seventy-eight percent say they always wash before handling or eating food, compared with 77% in 2005.
  • Only 1/3 (34%) of respondents said they always wash their hands after coughing or sneezing, a slight improvement from the 32% in 2005.

Hand Sanitizers Can Also Kill Germs

“Hand washing is the single most important thing we can all do to keep from spreading bugs,” says Judy A. Daly, PhD, an ASM spokeswoman and director of the microbiology laboratories at the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City.

“It can work miracles at preventing colds, the flu, and other infectious diseases,” she tells WebMD.

For the new study, the researchers made sure that public bathrooms were well stocked with soap, running water, and towels.

So what do you do if the next restroom you hit doesn’t meet these standards? Reach for the hand sanitizer or hand wipes, Daly advises.

WebMD Video: Now Playing

Click here to wach video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

Which sex is the worst about washing up? Why is it so important? We’ve got the dirty truth on how and when to wash your hands.

Click here to watch video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing