Disgusting Reasons to Wash Your Hands

Hand Washing Study: Disgust Motivates Men, Knowledge Motivates Women

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 22, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 22, 2009 -- If you want to get a man to wash his hands, you might want to make your message downright disgusting.

Try this phrase: "Soap it off or eat it later." That was one of the best hand-washing motivators for men in a study published recently in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study took place in the restrooms of a highway service station in the U.K. during the summer holidays, when the roads were busy with travelers of all ages.

The researchers set up an electronic message display, written in capitalized flashing letters, in the men's and women's restrooms. All of the messages were about the importance of washing hands with soap. But the messages differed in their tone.

Some messages spelled out the risks of not washing your hands, such as "Water doesn't kill germs, soap does."

Other messages tapped into social norms, such as "Is the person next to you washing with soap?" Still more messages went for what the researchers call the "yuck factor," such as "Don't take the loo with you -- wash with soap."

For comparison, sometimes the message board was blank. Sensors on the restroom soap dispensers recorded how often people used soap.

Different types of messages motivated men and women to lather up.

"Disgust triggered the highest response in men but produced no significant response in women," write the researchers, who included Gaby Judah, BA, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health.

Women were more responsive to messages that were about knowing the risks of not washing their hands.

"The only message that performed well in both genders was the normative message, 'Is the person next to you washing with soap," the researchers write.

Judah's team interviewed people after they left the restrooms, and most of them didn't recall seeing the hand-washing messages at all. The study also doesn't show whether people took enough time washing their hands.

But the findings do show that different messages may be more effective than others at getting people to wash their hands, Judah and colleagues note.