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COVID-19 Update—Americans Struggle With Proper Handwashing

Years of studies reveal lax hand hygiene policies

April 2, 2020

New Survey Finds One-Third of Respondents Fail in Hand Hygiene

Despite increased attention on the importance of handwashing, a new survey from the American Cleaning Institute (ACI) found that more than one-third of Americans are still not practicing proper hand hygiene.

The survey of 1,005 adults revealed that just over half (58%) of them make sure they scrub their hands for at least 20 seconds, and one in 10 admit they have not made any changes to their handwashing practices.

A majority (78%) of respondents said they are washing their hands more frequently with soap and water since the coronavirus pandemic began while almost half (46%) are using hand sanitizer more often.

When asked what hygiene or cleaning products they have used more often since the pandemic, the respondents replied:

  • Hand soap – 69%
  • Hand sanitizer – 59%
  • Multi-purpose disinfectant wipes – 44%
  • Multi-purpose spray disinfectant – 36%
  • Paper towels – 35%
  • Toilet or bathroom cleaner – 23%
  • Bleach – 9%
  • None of these products – 12%

Previous Studies Find Men Wash Less Than Women

Pandemic aside, a more than a decade’s worth of handwashing surveys, reports, and research have consistently found that Americans are lacking in proper technique—especially men, CNN reports.

Researchers have had to come up with clever ways to collect handwashing data, since when most people are asked if they washed their hands after using the restroom or before preparing food, even if they didn’t most people will lie and said they did.

In one especially sneaky study, research assistants at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, hung out in four different restrooms on campus to unobtrusively record the actions of almost 4,000 male and female students. They found 15% of men didn’t wash their hands at all, compared with 7% of women. When men did wash their hands, only 50% of men used soap, compared with 78% of women.

A larger study used wireless devices at a busy highway rest stop in the United Kingdom to record how many people entered the restroom and used the soap dispenser pumps. After collecting data on almost 200,000 restroom trips over three months, researchers found only 31% of men and 65% of women washed their hands with soap.

Although there has not been much research done on the gender gap in handwashing, scientists believe it is due to socially programmed behavior, with many women traditionally focused on child, household, and personal care and many men exhibiting macho behavior to prove they don’t fear germs.

The few studies on the topic suggest that men and women respond to different types of messaging.  Women are motivated by messages that activate knowledge, such as soap kills germs, while men are motivated by messages that trigger disgust, such as if you don’t wash your hands before you eat, you’ll be ingesting germs.

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