Dirty Secret: Only 5 Percent of Restroom Users Wash Hands Properly

After reading this article, you may want to, well, wash your hands.  A new study in the Journal of Environmental Health found only five percent of people wash their hands long enough to kill germs after using a public restroom.

Professor Carl Borchgrevink and his team of student researchers at Michigan State University studied more than 3,700 people in the restrooms of bars, restaurants and other public locations. What they found wasn’t pretty — or clean. Thirty-three percent did not use soap.  Ten percent did not wash their hands at all. And only five percent washed their hands for 15 to 20 seconds — the time experts recommend for killing germs. On average, most people only washed their hands for six seconds.

Men were less likely to wash their hands than women. When they did wash their hands, only 50 percent of men used soap, compared to 78 percent of women.

The researchers also found people were better at washing their hands in the earlier part of the day. Borchgrevink suggests this might indicate that people out for the evening were in a more relaxed mode.

A dirty sink discouraged hand washing. But in restrooms with signs directing patrons to wash their hands, people were actually encouraged to lather up.

Hand washing prevents the spread of infection and illness. Borchgrevink, who has also been a chef and restaurant owner, says good hand-washing can also save reputations.

“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. You could lose your business,” Borchgrevink says.

And while most of us know we should wash our hands after the restroom, the CDC reminds us there are plenty of other times we should be lathering up, including after handling trash, caring for a sick person or a person with a wound, preparing food, or blowing your nose.

And make sure to wash your hands the right way. That means rubbing your hands together to create a good lather—and like your mother always told you—scrub well, including the backs of your hands. Make sure to get under your nails and between your fingers too.

The wash should last for about twenty seconds. If you have trouble keeping track, experts recommended singing a short song. The CDC suggests that singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice is about the right time for really clean hands.


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