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New (Gross) Study: Most Men Don't Wash Hands After Bathroom

By L. K. Regan

Here's some news that will make you think twice about the casual handshake: British researchers have found that less than a third of men wash their hands after using the toilet. In these days of swine flu pandemic, that's a pretty scary statistic. Worse yet, the researchers found there are few ways to persuade guys to clean up their act.

The British study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, depended on a devilishly simple design: place sensors in bathrooms at service stations on British highways. These sensors were set to survey the water-and-soap behavior of the quarter of a million or so people who came through in the course of 32 days of observation. The researchers were hoping to find that people dutifully scrub their hands with soap after each visit—since, as the study authors write, "Hand-washing with soap has been ranked the most cost-effective intervention for the worldwide control of disease." In fact, if people would wash regularly with soap and water, over a million deaths from diarrheal diseases per year might be prevented. And that's not to mention that the CDC recommends hand washing as one of the most effective ways of slowing the spread of the swine flu pandemic.

Sadly, the study's results were not particularly auspicious. Less than a third of the men and two-thirds of the women who passed through the bathrooms during the study washed their hands with soap and water after using the toilet. So, researchers tried presenting bathroom users with a variety of messages to try to impact those statistics, and find out what motivates people to wash up. Electronic message boards at the bathroom entrances flashed a variety of hand-washing warnings, allowing the researchers to see which messages impacted behavior within the bathroom.

The messages showed a full range of approaches to hand-washing. Some were gentle reminders of the facts of hygiene; for instance, "Water doesn't kill germs, soap does." Others were more, well, explicit—for example, "Don't take the loo with you—wash with soap." Men and women differed in their behavioral responses to the messages. Women reacted best to the basic reminders that they ought to wash. Men, however, responded best to the gross-out effect, with messages like, "Soap it off or eat it later."

Not surprisingly, the most effective message overall involved shame and peer pressure. "Is the person next to you washing with soap?", when flashed on the board, got 12 percent more hand washing out of men and 11 percent more from the women. So the next time you're in the bathroom, wash your hands with soap and warm water (rubbing the soap into your hands for long enough to sing the alphabet through twice—that's about 20 seconds). It's the best thing you can do today for your own health and that of everyone you encounter through the day. And if the guy next to you isn't using soap, make sure he sees you staring!