By Lindsay Friedman
Hand washing isn't exactly an arduous chore, especially since it's done in the name of squashing germs, says Carl Borchgrevink, an associate professor at Michigan State University's School of Hospitality and Business.
Regrettably, it's a chore that often goes neglected.
According to a study led by Borchgrevink, only 5% of people washed their hands enough to kill infection and illness causing germs after using the bathroom. To make matters worse, 33% of hand washers didn't use soap, and 10% skipped the hygienic step altogether.
"It's horrifying," Borchgrevink says. "A majority didn't even make an effort."
Borchgrevink, with the help of 12 research assistants, visited a number of restrooms in the college town of East Lansing. Observing the tendencies of more than 3,700 bathroom-goers in a non-intrusive manner, they determined age with an educated guess, labeling subjects as either "college-age" or "non-college-age."
Among their observations: Members of older generations washed their hands more often and for longer periods of time compared with youngsters. People were more likely to wash their hands earlier in the day rather than in the late afternoon. Additionally, men were found to be less-spirited hand cleansers and were "particularly worse at washing their hands correctly."
"Men might just be more stubborn. They don't like to be told what to do," Borchgrevink says. "I've heard some men say they don't think they need to wash their hands because they don't always have to use stalls, which is absolutely wrong."
According to the CDC, people need to vigorously wash their hands for about 15 to 20 seconds to kill any type of dangerous bacteria. Most people wash their hands for about six seconds. Without executing the correct hand sanitizing techniques, grime, dirt and bacteria that would typically be sent down the drain stays on the hands and increases the host's likelihood of becoming seriously ill.
"Education is there, but ... it's easily overlooked," says Karen Francois, a physician at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell. "We're more aware of sanitation and hygiene, but people still aren't doing it. Even though we know it's the right thing to do, we aren't doing it consistently."
Why are people willing to skip such an easy germ-fighting step? Borchgrevink wants to know.
"Being sanitary is really important," he says. "It's possible that they may not have paid attention (to the CDC or other hand washing advocates), thinking it doesn't apply to them. I don't think they're maliciously not washing their hands. I just think they're just not realizing the impact."
Borchgrevink says clean facilities and signage maximizes the chances someone would choose to send germy villains down the pipes. The former restaurateur says social pressures should do the trick, too.
"It's so important to make (hand washing) convenient," Francois says. "If it's easy, it would really encourage people to have proper hand hygiene."
Hand washing tips
•Always use soap: A quick rinse with just water won't get rid of all the harmful germs that could make you sick. Bathrooms, especially door handles, are crawling with germs.
•Know where your hands have been: Germs are impossible to avoid, even in some of the cleanest places. Know what you have touched, and be aware of where your hands are about to go. For instance, if you're at the supermarket and touching a germy cart, don't grab a grape for a taste because you will transfer the germs from that cart to your mouth.
•Make it a routine to stay clean: Just as you brush your teeth before bed, get in the habit of washing your hands at certain times - before eating, after using the bathroom and when getting home from work or school.
•Start young: The importance of good hygiene is best taught when people are young. That way, keeping hands clean will become a habit as they get older. Make it a point to implement hand washing, and keep a chart or awards system if necessary.
•Disinfect your technology: A couple of times a week, take a disinfectant cloth and wipe down your phones, computer, mouse and even the remote to your TV.
•Keep hygiene fun for children: Like anything else, hand washing has to be fun if you want your kids to pay attention. A fun trick to measure how long your kids should be scrubbing is singing the Happy Birthday song twice.
•Know how to wash your hands: It's surprising, but a lot of people don't know the proper method to wash hands. Here's how to wash your hands according to the CDC: Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap. Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails. Continue scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds and rinse your hands well under running water. Finish up by drying your hands with a clean towel or by air-drying them.
Source: Karen Francois, a physician at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell