Sept. 21, 2005 -- About nine in 10 American adults say they wash their hands after using a public restroom, but only about eight in 10 actually do so, according to a new report.
Women were more likely to wash their hands than men, but the study shows that both sexes were guilty of not being as diligent about hand washing as they said they were.
Researchers say hand washing is the single most important thing people can do to stop the spread of illness and reduce the risk of getting sick.
"We unconsciously touch our mouths, noses, and eyes many, many times each day," states Judy Daly, PhD, professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, in a news release. "These mucous membranes are welcome mats for cold and flu viruses, which are readily transferred from unclean hands."
Daly is also secretary of the American Society for Microbiology, which commissioned the study along with the Soap and Detergent Association.
The CDC says it's important to remember that in addition to colds, some pretty serious diseases -- like hepatitis A, meningitis, and infectious diarrhea -- can easily be prevented if people make a habit of washing their hands.
The study, conducted by the research firm Harris Interactive, consisted of a nationwide telephone survey of more than 1,000 adults as well as observing the behavior of people in public restrooms in August 2005.
Researchers observed more than 6,000 people in restrooms at six major public attractions in four major U.S. cities: Atlanta (Turner Field), Chicago (Museum of Science and Industry and Shedd Aquarium), New York City (Grand Central Station and Penn Station), and San Francisco (Ferry Terminal Farmers Market).
Overall, the results showed that 90% of women washed their hands after using the restroom compared with 75% of men.
Researchers say that's much lower than the 97% of women and 96% of men who said in the telephone survey that they always or usually wash their hands after using a public restroom.
Washing habits also varied from city to city. For example:
- Sports fans at Atlanta's Turner Field had the worst hand washing habits. About a quarter (26%) did not wash their hands after using the public restroom.
- The biggest disparity between men's and women's hand washing habits was at New York's Penn Station: 92% of the women washed their hands after using the restroom compared with only 64% of the men.
- San Francisco shoppers had the best hand hygiene with 88% washing their hands after using the facilities.
Hand Washing Habits Vary
The telephone survey showed that the biggest percentage of people (91%) say they always wash their hands after using a public restroom versus after any other activity.
Fewer people said they always washed their hands after other activities, such as:
- Using the bathroom at home (83%)
- Before or after handling or eating food (77%)
- Changing a diaper (73%)
- Petting a dog or cat (42%)
- Coughing or sneezing (32%)
- Handling money (21%)
"Only 24% of men and 39% of women say they always wash their hands after coughing or sneezing," states Brian Sansoni of the Soap and Detergent Association, in the release. "We have to do a better job here in stopping the spread of the germs that make us sick."
Hand Washing 101
Here are tips from the CDC on correct hand washing techniques:
- First wet your hands and apply liquid or clean bar soap. Place the bar soap on a rack and allow it to drain.
- Next rub your hands vigorously together and scrub all surfaces.
- Continue for 10-15 seconds or about the length of singing a little tune. It is the soap combined with the scrubbing action that helps dislodge and remove germs.
- Rinse well and dry your hands.