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Hand Washing. Who Really Does It?

Most people if questioned would tell you that washing their hands is important.  We continue to receive messages from multiple health agencies as to the importance of washing our hands, but when new research suggests that we aren’t “just doing it,” it can be surprising.

Meeting the Recommendation?

A recent study, in the April edition of the Journal of Environmental Health, found that out of a sample of 3,739 people, only 5.3% washed their hands for at least 15 seconds.  This study was performed in a college town environment and relied on trained observers, in a variety of restrooms, to watch in an unobtrusive manner, the hand washing behaviors of those who used the restroom.  These results are a little different from those reported in 2009 and 2010, that suggested 94-96% of people surveyed, self-reported washing their hands after using the restroom.  This suggests that we know we need to wash our hands, but few of us are actually doing it correctly. 

The Importance

I don’t know about you, but this definitely caught my attention as we have more recent foodborne illness outbreaks related to norovirus and hepatitis A.    Not only are foodservice workers targeted when outbreaks such as these occur, but customers can be responsible as well, and it appears we need continued education and reminders as to the need to wash our hands, and how to wash our hands in an appropriate manner.

Favorable Environmental Conditions

The Michigan State University study found that two environmental conditions resulted in subjects more likely washing their hands.  They found that when restroom sinks were clean people were more likely to wash their hands, and when restrooms displayed signs reminding people to wash their hands, that indeed more people would wash their hands.

National Handwashing Awareness Week

December 1st-7th is “National Handwashing Awareness Week” and what better time to remind all of us to wash our hands.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommends the following procedure: 

  • 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 rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry.


  1.  Borchgrevink, C.P., Cha, J., and Kim, S.  “Hand Washing Practices in a College Town Environment”.  Journal of Environmental Health.  2013; Vol.75 No.8:18-24.  Available at:
  2.  QSR Magazine. (2009).  Are Americans washing their hands?  Available at:
  3. Harris Interactive. (2010)  Survey of hand washing behavior (trended): Prepared for the American Microbiology Society and American Cleaning Institute.  Available at:
  4. CDC Features – Wash Your Hands.  “What is the right way to wash your hands?”  Available at:
animated hand washing photo

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Extension Educator:
Vicki Hayman – (307) 746-3531

University of Wyoming Extension

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Extension Educator:
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University of Wyoming Extension

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Issued in furtherance of extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kelly Crane, Director, University of Wyoming Extension, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Wyoming Extension, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071.

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