healthHealth and Medicine

Everyone Is Still Washing Their Hands Wrong, According To Government Study


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer


Pure filth. makieni/Shutterstock

Every couple of years or so, it transpires that you are washing your hands all wrong. Well, as you’ve probably guessed by this point, you’re probably still doing it wrong – presumably just like everything else in life.

As first spotted by CNN, a new study by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) concluded that a whopping 97 percent of us are failing to properly cleanse our filth-encrusted palms, which makes you wonder just how that 3 percent have so much time on their, well, hands. This is obviously not great, because unclean hands harbor and help spread all kinds of diseases.


The study looked at the hand-washing habits of 383 people in North Carolina. At this stage, we don’t know whether certain states are better at scrubbing their hands than those in the now-shamed Tar Heel State, but we’ll assume science’ll get right on that.

Anyway, the study, conducted in collaboration with North Carolina State University and the non-profit RTI International, looked at six kitchen test facilities across the state, in both rural and metropolitan locations. Before prepping a meal, a randomized treatment group watched a 3-minute safety video by the USDA, which explained how to cook food to a safe temperature and how to use a food thermometer.

Then, as they engaged in the meal prep – turkey burgers and a chef’s salad, spiked with a harmless tracer bacteria-infecting virus – cameras recorded their behavior.

There’s a lot in the observational study about how the use of a thermometer was more commonplace in the section of the subjects that were shown the video, which is lovely. Everyone’s attention, of course, is on the handwashing element – so what did they find?



It appeared that both those in the control group and the video group only “attempted” to wash their hands after handling raw products about one-third of the time. Among attempted handwashing events, the preliminary results show that 2 percent of the treatment group and 1 percent of the control group engaged in an “adequate handwashing event.”

The most common missing step was not rubbing their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds. Plenty also failed to wet their hands with water, which, you know, seems pretty intuitive. The tracer virus revealed that bacteria was easily spread from raw poultry onto plenty of other surfaces, from spice containers to refrigerator handles because of these heinous acts.

Far from just being suspicious of North Carolinians forever more, there’s a solid chance we’re all disgusting, lazy humans too. Plenty of studies have investigated this, and they all come to pretty much the same conclusion.


So – how does one remove all the E. coli from their hands again? Proper handwashing is defined by a few places, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who, among other things, advise you to hum the Happy Birthday song from beginning to end – twice – to yourself as you scrub your hands with soap, much in the way a serial killer in their own origin story might.

A 2016 study, however, found that even the CDC’s instructions aren’t good enough. Instead, if you’re keen on killing those germs, the best thing to do is follow the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO), whose even longer six-step method looks a lot like you’re trying to signal in code.

The six-ish step guide to handwashing. WHO

At the very least, though, use soap and water, people. Come on.


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