The restroom hand washing behaviors of 3,739 people were unobtrusively watched and documented in a study recently by Michigan State University. Though hand washing compliance rates appear to have increased in recent years, the report demonstrates we continue to fall short of the ideal – especially amongst men.

The CDC recommends 15-20 seconds of vigorous hand washing with soap and water to effectively kill germs, but it seems both men and women average just 6.27 to 7.07 seconds respectively.  In fact, the report states, “Only 5.3% of the sample washed their hands for 15-seconds or more.”

These results are even more disturbing when you consider that 50% of all foodborne illness outbreaks are a result of people either failing to wash or insufficiently washing their hands.  The researchers suggest that hand washing with soap can reduce diarrheal diseases risk by more than 40% and that hand washing intervention could save one million lives annually.

Despite all the public awareness however, it seems most people, “take hand washing for granted and do not consider how essential hand washing is in the prevention of infections and disease.”  The report states that most people, “Fail to wash their hands when they engage in activity that would warrant or require hand washing,” and that “…people generally overstate the degree to which they washed their hands.”

The research also indentified a gender bias in hand washing practices as women were consistently observed to wash their hands more frequently than men.

In a 2003 study by the American Society for Microbiology, it was observed that 83% of women washed their hands after using the restroom, but only 74% of men did the same.  It seems this is not unique to the US, as demonstrated in a British study conducted in highway service station restrooms, using electronic sensors to measure compliance.  It was found that 65% of women and 35% of men washed their hands.

Men it seems need more encouragement than women to engage in proper hand washing behavior.  Though most men and women do wash their hands using soap, 35% of men use just water (no soap) compared to 15% for women.

The good news though, is that the hand washing rate increased in a number of studies when messages designed to encourage hand washing were displayed.  “The public needs to be continuously encouraged to engage in proper hand washing practices.  In addition, careful attention to restroom environmental conditions and signage may help increase compliance.  Given the established gender biased, consideration should be given to the content of the message targeting men and women.”

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