Wednesday, October 7, 2009

No Soap? Then Hand Washing Is A Waste of Time

I hear there's some sort of "flu virus" going around. There will be plenty more to say about that soon.

For now, it's worthwhile to call your attention to this piece Lifebridge Health submitted to Newswise concerning exactly how poor of a job many of us do at washing our hands. Hint: soap is important.

Newswise — A poll conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of LifeBridge Health reveals that when in a public restroom without soap or towels, 74 percent of American adults who use public restrooms would rinse their hands with water and let them air dry.

“They might as well not even bother,” says John Cmar, M.D., an internist at LifeBridge Health’s Sinai Hospital of Baltimore and expert on infectious diseases. “Washing with water alone does not get rid of microbes – the action of working up a lather with soap, and then rinsing it off, is what washes them away. Plus, by touching the sink faucet – one of the dirtiest things in a restroom – these people could be adding even more germs to their hands.”

The survey, which was conducted between September 17 and 21, surveyed 2,257 U.S. adults aged 18+, of whom 2,208 use public restrooms. The poll also revealed that only 12 percent of public restroom users would immediately go find another place to wash their hands in that situation, though that number increases to 17 percent among those aged 18 to 44 and 19 percent among females in that same age range.

Six percent of males aged 18 to 34 who use public restrooms said if there were no soap or paper towels in a public restroom then they would give themselves a “free pass” and not wash their hands at all. This self-reported number is much lower than what past observational studies have revealed; an August 2007 study (1) conducted in four U.S. cities observed 34 percent of men (presumed to be aged 18+) neglecting to wash their hands at all in public restrooms, despite the availability of soap, towels and running water.

“To avoid getting sick, it is critical that people know how to wash their hands the right way,” says Jackie Daley, director of Infection Prevention and Control at Sinai Hospital. “Many people think the water temperature kills the germs on their hands, but water from a faucet could never get hot enough to do that,” she says. “The keys are the soap, the length of scrubbing time and drying your hands thoroughly with towels afterwards.” Daley stresses that people need to scrub their hands with soap and water for at least 15 to 20 seconds – about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” through twice. If soap and water are not available, then an alcohol-based hand rub will work to destroy germs.

American adults also said that concern over H1N1 “swine” flu has affected their hand hygiene habits. Nearly 8 out of 10 adults claim to wash their hands more frequently or thoroughly – 54 percent wash their hands more frequently in general; 45 percent wash them more frequently after being in a public place; and 44 percent wash them more thoroughly now than they did before concerns about H1N1.

Overall, while 85 percent of adults 55 and older say they are now washing their hands more often or more thoroughly, this number drops to 71 percent of those aged 18 to 34. This finding is somewhat ironic given that unlike seasonal flu, which tends to disproportionately affect the elderly, so far H1N1 has taken a heavier toll on young people. For more information on LifeBridge Health’s initiative to encourage Marylanders to wash their hands more often and more effectively, visit

(1) Harris Interactive observed the behavior of 6,076 adults (3,065 males and 3,011 females) in public restrooms (sufficiently equipped with soap, running water and towels) at six locations in four major U.S. cities and recorded whether or not they washed their hands after using the facilities from August 17-25, 2007, on behalf of the American Society for Microbiology and the Soap and Detergent Association

Come on, people! Wash your hands. Getting them wet doesn't count.

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