News Release

Women better at hand hygiene habits, hands down

Observational study shows 90% of women washed hands vs. 75% of men after using public restrooms

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Society for Microbiology

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 21, 2005 – Ninety-one percent of American adults say they always wash their hands after using public restrooms. But just 83 percent actually did so, according to a separate observational study.

These results were among those released by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and The Soap and Detergent Association (SDA), during a press conference highlighting National Clean Hands Week. Both groups have used surveys over the years to help highlight a vital public health message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

The single most important thing we can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness to others is to clean our hands.

An August 2005 study conducted for ASM and SDA by Harris Interactive® observed 6,336 individuals wash their hands – or not – at six public attractions in four major cities: Atlanta (Turner Field), Chicago (Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium), New York City (Grand Central Station, Penn Station), and San Francisco (Ferry Terminal Farmers Market).

Ninety percent of the women observed washed their hands, compared to 75 percent of men. By contrast, in an August 2005 telephone survey of 1,013 American adults also conducted by Harris Interactive®, 97 percent of women and 96 percent of men say they always or usually wash their hands after using a public restroom.

"The American Society for Microbiology has been focusing on increasing public awareness of clean hands in periodic campaigns since 1996, and this message remains one of our most important priorities," according to Judy Daly, Ph.D. Dr. Daly is the elected Secretary of the Society and Director of the Microbiology Laboratories, Primary Children's Medical Center, Salt Lake City, Utah and Professor in the Department of Pathology, University of Utah School of Medicine.

"Good health is within reach," said Brian Sansoni, Vice President of Communication at The Soap and Detergent Association. "Washing with soap and water is still the gold standard when it comes to removing dirt and grime from our hands. But if soap and water are out of reach, hand sanitizers and wipes are great hygiene tools to have on hand."

Sports Fans, Time to Clean Up

Among those observed, fans at Atlanta's Turner Field had the worst hand hygiene habits. Approximately a quarter (26%) did not wash their hands after using the facilities (84% of the women washed their hands; 37% of the guys didn't).

New York Travelers: Guys Have a Ways to Go

The greatest gender disparity observed between women and men handwashers was in New York's Penn Station: 92 percent of the women washed their hands, compared to only 64 percent of the men.

San Francisco: Pretty Clean

Those traveling through San Francisco's Ferry Terminal Farmers Market fared best in the observed handwashing study: 88 percent washed their hands; only 12 percent did not.

Survey Reveals Inconsistent Hygiene Habits

The telephone survey questioned a nationally representative sample of 1,013 American adults. Large majorities answered they always wash their hands after such activities as using a public restroom (91%), using the bathroom at home (83%), before handling or eating food (77%), and changing a diaper (73%).

Much poorer habits were revealed as fewer indicated they always washed their hands after petting a dog or cat (42%), after handling money (21%), and, most shockingly, after coughing or sneezing (32%).

"Only 24 percent of men and 39 percent of women say they always wash their hands after coughing or sneezing," said the SDA's Brian Sansoni. "We have to do a better job here in stopping the spread of the germs that make us sick."

Contrary to what many people believe, cold and influenza viruses are spread much more often by hands than through airborne transmission from sneezing, according to Daly. "We unconsciously touch our mouths, noses, and eyes many, many times each day," she said. "These mucous membranes are welcome mats for cold and flu viruses, which are readily transferred from unclean hands."

Comparisons to Past Surveys

Survey respondents may be more forthcoming about their hygiene habits than in the past – or else their habits are getting worse. Over the last seven years, men's admitted handwashing habits have declined slightly when it comes to washing their hands after using the bathroom at home, changing a diaper and before handling food.

Meantime, in 2005, slightly fewer women admit to washing their hands after using a public restroom (97% of women said they did in an August 2003 Wirthlin Worldwide survey for ASM, 94% said so in the 2005 Harris Interactive survey).

"Although many Americans are beginning to recognize the importance of washing their hands, we still need to reach many others," Daly says. "Our message is clear: one of the most effective tools in preventing the spread of infection is literally at our fingertips."

The ASM site has information about current and past surveys as well as downloadable educational resources in English and in Spanish.

SDA also has hand hygiene educational resources available online at its website, – click on the "Hand Hygiene" button.

ASM and SDA are both members of the Clean Hands Coalition, a national alliance of public and private partners working to create and support coordinated, sustained initiatives to significantly improve health and save lives through clean hands. The Coalition's website is

Observational Survey Methodology

Harris Interactive conducted an observational study on behalf of the American Society for Microbiology and The Soap and Detergent Association in August 2005 among 6,336 adults, of whom 3,206 were men and 3,310 were women, in public restrooms located at major public attractions in the U.S. and recorded whether or not they washed their hands after using the facilities. The research was conducted in four cities and at six different locations:

  • Atlanta – Turner Field
  • Chicago – Museum of Science and Industry and Shedd Aquarium
  • New York City – Penn Station and Grand Central Station
  • San Francisco – Ferry Terminal Farmers Market

Observers discreetly watched and recorded whether or not adults using public restrooms washed their hands. Observers were instructed to groom themselves (comb their hair, put on make-up, etc.) while observing and to rotate bathrooms every hour or so to avoid counting repeat users more than once. Observers were also instructed to wash their hands no more than 10% of the time.

Telephone Survey Methodology

Harris Interactive conducted the telephone survey on behalf of the American Society for Microbiology and The Soap and Detergent Association between August 19 and 22, 2005 among 1,013 U.S. adults aged 18+, of whom 486 were men and 527 were women. Data were weighted to be representative of the entire U.S. adult population by gender, education, ethnicity and region.

In theory, with samples of this size, one could say with 95 percent certainty that the overall results have a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points of what they would be if the entire U.S. adult population had been polled with complete accuracy.


The American Society for Microbiology, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is the largest single life science association, with 42,000 members worldwide. The ASM's mission is to gain a better understanding of basic life processes and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health and economic and environmental well-being.

The Soap and Detergent Association ( is the Home of the U.S. Cleaning Products IndustrySM, representing manufacturers of household, industrial, and institutional cleaning products; their ingredients and finished packaging; and oleochemical producers. SDA members produce more than 90 percent of the cleaning products marketed in the U.S. The SDA is located at 1500 K Street, NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20005.

Harris Interactive® (, the 13th largest and fastest-growing market research firm in the world, is a Rochester, NY-based global research company that blends premier strategic consulting with innovative and efficient methods of investigation, analysis and application. Known for The Harris Poll® and for pioneering Internet-based research methods, Harris Interactive conducts proprietary and public research to help its clients achieve clear, material and enduring results. It now includes WirthlinWorldwide, who has completed this study since its inception in 1996.

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