Hand Washing Frequency Dips in U.S.

Only 77% Lather Up in Public Restrooms, a 6% Decline From 2005

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 17, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

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

Researchers who discretely observed men and women in public restrooms foundthat only 77% washed their hands with soap and water -- a 6% decline from2005.

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

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

Men Blamed for Slipup

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

The percentage of men observed washing their hands fell from 75% in 2005 to66% 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,” Sansonitells WebMD. “But Americans, especially guys, need to step up to the sink.”

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

Chicago: The Cleanest City

For the observational study, the researchers monitored the hand washinghabits 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 SheddAquarium, New York's Penn and Grand Central train stations, and San Francisco'sFerry Terminal Farmers Market.

Among the findings:

  • Chicagoans appeared to have the best hand hygiene: 81% of men and womenlathered 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 observedwashing their hands at Turner Field in Atlanta, the lowest figure at anylocales.
  • On the other hand, women hit a home run at the home of the Braves: 95% wereobserved 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 handwashing 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 beforehandling or eating food, compared with 77% in 2005.
  • Only 1/3 (34%) of respondents said they always wash their hands aftercoughing 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 fromspreading bugs,” says Judy A. Daly, PhD, an ASM spokeswoman and director of themicrobiology laboratories at the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt LakeCity.

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

For the new study, the researchers made sure that public bathrooms were wellstocked 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.

Show Sources

SOURCES: 47th International Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, Chicago, Sept. 17-20, 2007. Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication, Soap and Detergent Association. Judy A. Daly, PhD, ASM spokeswoman; director, microbiology laboratories, Primary Children’s Medical Center, Salt Lake City. Soap and Detergent Association web site.

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