A Disappointing Show of Hands in New Hand-washing Study

Hand-washingHand-washing among the public is not what it should be, according to a Michigan State University research group.  Their new study found only five percent of individuals observed in restrooms throughout a college town exhibit hand-washing behavior that conforms with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations to wash with clean, running water and soap for at least 20 seconds followed by rinsing and drying.

To collect data, twelve research assistants fanned out through a college town to unobtrusively observe over 3,700 people in public restrooms.  Besides documenting problems associated with hand-washing, the study data help shed light on environmental factors that help promote this important hygiene measure.

Here are some highlights of the findings:

  • About 10 percent of people did not wash their hands after using the restroom.
  • About 67 percent of people used soap; 23 percent wet their hands but did not use soap.
  • Women used soap and engaged in proper hand-washing significantly more (about 78 percent) than men (about 50 percent).
  • People estimated to be older than college-aged washed their hands (about 70 percent) more than the college age and younger set (about 65 percent).
  • People using restrooms with hand-washing reminder signs used soap more frequently (about 68 percent) than those using restrooms without such signs (about 60 percent).
  • People using restrooms with clean sinks washed their hands using soap (about 74 percent) more than those using restrooms with reasonably clean sinks (about 61 percent) and those with dirty sinks (about 59 percent).
  • Faucet type—whether standard or motion-activated—did not statistically affect hand-washing behavior.
  • Whereas only about 5 percent of people washed their hands for 15 or more seconds, about 24 percent washed for 9-14 seconds; 38 percent washed for 5-8 seconds; 22 percent washed for 1-4 seconds (see the graph below).

Percentage of People Washing Hands for Designated Time in Seconds

According to CDC, hand washing is one of the most important hygiene measures that can be taken to reduce the spread of infectious disease. This study sheds light on the problem of insufficient hand-washing as well as potential steps to help encourage solutions. Let’s lather up!

The Right Way to Wash Your Hands1

  1. Wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
  2. Rub your hands together vigorously to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Continue rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under running water.
  5. Dry your hands thoroughly using a clean towel or air dry.

1Based on: CDC website, “Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives” at cdc.gov/handwashing/


Joan Rose, PhD, is the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University and a member of the Water Quality and Health Council.