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Getting Guys to Wash Their Hands

We all know that one of the simplest, best ways to stay healthy is to wash our hands a lot, especially these days during the swine flu pandemic. Some new research out Thursday offers clues to what gets people to actually do it. And guess what? Shame appears to be the best motivation. And, for guys, appealing to the gross-out factor doesn't hurt.

A team of researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine conducted an experiment in which nearly 200,000 people were monitored using electronic sensors installed in service station bathrooms along highways in Britain.

Only about a third of the men washed their hands with soap after using the bathrooms, compared to about 64 percent of the women, the researchers reported in the American Journal of Public Health.

A variety of messages, such as "Water doesn't kill germs, soap does" and "Don't be a dirty soap dodger" were flashed on LED screens at the entrances of the bathrooms to determine how best to motivate people to wash their hands. Most of the messages helped increase hand washing, but "Is the person next to you washing with soap?" turned out to be the best of all, illustrating that people respond the most when they think someone is watching them.

Women tended to respond best to any kind of reminder, while men tended to respond best to messages that invoked disgust, such as "soap it off or eat it later," the researchers found.

The findings were released to coincide with "Global Handwashing Day," which is aimed at improving handwashing around the world to help fight the swine flu pandemic and reduce the spread of germs that cause diarrhea and other diseases.

By Rob Stein  |  October 15, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , General Health , Influenza , Prevention , Psychology , Women's Health  
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Next: Is That Right? "Decreasing salt intake is advisable"


I dunno about that 64% stat. I'm a woman and think women are lying about their fastidious hand-washing. Based on my observations, it's shocking how many don't wash after using the restroom. I see it at work and at the gym. It's disgusted. I'm always tempted to say something... perhaps I should ask Miss Manners how to do that gracefully.

Posted by: patriciawsf | October 15, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

It might help if the information were correct. Soap does NOT kill germs. Handwashing cleanses by getting the bad stuff off you and down the drain. Soap and does improve that, so it plays a part, but please do not try to feed me inaccurate information.

Shall we move on to innoculations, and the fictions that are fed to us?

Posted by: MSchafer | October 15, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

The key point is washing hands thoroughly. Unless there is grease or such substance, soap is unnecessary.

Posted by: philly3 | October 15, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

MSchafer...Rosemary, is that you? I swear that you sound just like my sister. Only drinks distilled water, organic vegan diet for her children since they could handle solid food, nursed them until at least age 4, no circumcision, no dairy. Hard to understand why her children are in the 10th percentile for height and weight and developed rickets.

Posted by: skipper7 | October 15, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

The best solution for this I have seen is an exercise they do in local preschools and KGs. Kids put some kind of harmless yet gross green stuff on their hands that simulates germs. Then they wash hands in various ways (cold or warm water, with or without soap, quickly or while singing ABC song, etc.). There is also some very simplistic education about germs, with semi-scary cartoons of the bugs.

Once the kids see how the green goo gets on everything else they touch they want to wash it off. My kids are 14 and 18 now, but they still remember this and are motivated to wash.

Posted by: outragex | October 15, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I suppose Mschafer would prefer to be fed his own poo.

JFC, y'all, just wash your damn hands. Why is this such a difficult concept for grown adults to comprehend?

Posted by: dkp01 | October 15, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

I still fail to see how tugging my ear is less dirty than tugging my weasel.

So many restrooms are set up to permit us to do our business without actually touching anything but ourselves. I can walk in without touching a door. I can use a urinal without having to touch a handle to flush it. I can even wash my hands and get a paper towel and not have to touch a faucet or a knob.

So... why is my diddle so dirty? I don't get it.

But what really strikes me as funny, is that, you expect me to receive the message that my diddle is dirty, then go touch a faucet -- the same faucet that several thousand other people have slobbered on -- wash my hands with soap and water, then use my clean hands to turn the dirty faucet off. Afterwards, I'm supposed to go dry my hands by touching a dirty knob on a paper towel dispenser. And once my hands are dry, I'm supposed to go PULL the door open.


But my weiner is verboten!

Posted by: trambusto | October 15, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I had the students in my research methods class do a similar project about 5 years ago, where they stationed themselves outside restrooms and listened for the sounds of handwashing/paper towels, etc. when someone used a campus restroom. We got a gender difference like that reported here, though not as extreme; about 70% of women washed their hands vs. about 55% of guys.

Women were also more responsive to information encouraging handwashing. In the presence of signs that reminded people why handwashing was important, the rate for women went up to about 85%, whereas the messages had little impact on guys.

Posted by: jwillner1 | October 15, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Reminds me of an old joke. Navy pilot and a Marine are using a restroom. When the pilot is done, he starts to walk out the door and is interrupted by the Marine. "Hey, sailor, in the Marine Corps, they teach us to wash our hands after using the restroom". To which, the Navy Pilot replied "in the Navy, they teach us not to pee on our hands".

Posted by: warren5 | October 15, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

I've always found this post to be useful:

It's about the bacteria people....the bacteria...

Posted by: carl505 | October 15, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

White men are the biggest offenders when it comes to washing their hands after using the bathroom. I see thing almost everyday where I work. I make it a conscious afford not to touch anything I see them touch.

Posted by: demtse | October 15, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

White men are the biggest offenders when it comes to not washing their hands after using the restroom. They do their business, zip up and walk straight out of the restroom I see thing almost everyday where I work. I make it a conscious afford not to touch anything I see them touch.

Posted by: demtse | October 15, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Considering the kind of stuff that women put in their mouths, I don't think they need to be worrying about hand washing.

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | October 15, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

on the other end of the spectrum: there are a couple of women where I work who wash their hands before AND after using the toilet. Does this strike anyone besides me as overkill?

Posted by: justme22 | October 15, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Remember young kids are the #1 spreaders of germs: My child came home from school saying that they learned to cough and sneeze into their elbow with Germy Wormie, and I was totally taken aback. I always covered with my hands. But I went to the website and now I get it, hands touch, elbows don't!! Kids can touch 300 surfaces in 1/2 hour and they hate to wash their hands. This is a simple thing that can make a huge difference.

Posted by: marymoran1 | October 15, 2009 8:10 PM | Report abuse

You should do more than just wash your hands when your done using the bathroom. Men should wash the tip of their private part with soap and water when they are done taking a pee and should clean their bottom with soap and water after taking a poop. Maybe (lets hope) some wash their bottom when they shower, but I'm telling you that should clean your crack after every bowel movement...I know I do. If you do this you will have more energy, feel better and SMELL BETTER. Maybe I just have a good sense of smell, but some people out there need lessons on how to wipe their bottom after they take a number 2. I would also suggest not using most toilet paper to to wipe your rump because it falls apart when you wet it. Use paper towels or napkins.

Posted by: RobertCurleyJacobs | October 15, 2009 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Back in the mid-80s I saw a report in the paper which said that men were much more likely than women to wash their hands after using the bathroom. That was before the advent of the Web, so I cannot supply the precise details of the study. Anyone else out there with a long memory?

Posted by: boxall_david | October 16, 2009 2:02 AM | Report abuse

Regarding one's naughty bits... Of course, they are teeming with germs after being cooped up in dark, warm, moist quarters for hours at a time. Somewhere in junior high or high shcool one learns that yeasts and fungii love this environment. Well, so do strep, staph, and influenza.

Posted by: bigolpoofter | October 16, 2009 9:11 AM | Report abuse

philly3, I don't think you're right. My impression is bacteria sticks to the natural oil on our hands. Soap removes the oil, and so the bacteria in the oil. Water does not remove the oil, and so it does not remove the bacteria.

Posted by: cmckeonjr | October 17, 2009 12:14 AM | Report abuse

I think this article is really interesting because it brings up and makes us think about habits most of us do subconsciously. Through my experience I've definitely witnessed females to be cleaner and tidier than males. And as a male I know that, while I don't like to admit it, I'll try to do things to a better quality when I'm aware someone else is watching. I also believe witnessing someone doing a mediocre job of something such as washing your hands, makes you want to do a better job right in front of them. I'm a volleyball player at my highschool and I've come to realize that when I witness a player on my own team make an error or a bad play, I'm more motivated to play better. Nevertheless a very interesting article. Wash your hands.

Posted by: stuartcohen18 | October 19, 2009 8:35 PM | Report abuse

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