Caught dirty-handed

Boys may not have cooties, but according to a new study, they do have filthier hands.


Catherine Price
September 18, 2007 4:50PM (UTC)

Does anyone out there remember the "Seinfeld" episode from years ago in which Jerry uses the restroom while out to dinner with a date, sees the restaurant's chef in the john and then freaks out when the guy -- Poppie -- doesn't wash his hands on the way out?

Well, according to the Associated Press, Poppie's not the only one. A new study reported on Monday at a meeting of infectious-disease specialists asserts that fewer men than women wash their hands after using the bathroom (though, to be fair, neither gender's record is totally clear). According to these "researchers who spy on people in public bathrooms" (to quote the AP), a third of men didn't wash their hands after using the restroom, compared with 12 percent of women. And it's not as if the sample size was insubstantial -- the so-called spies observed more than 6,000 people last month in four major cities.

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What else did they find? In Atlanta's Turner Field baseball stadium, only 57 percent of guys lathered up, compared with 95 percent of women. At the San Francisco Ferry Building (home to a huge farmers market, which is upsetting when you consider how many people probably leave the bathroom seconds before running their dirty fingers over heirloom tomato displays), 62.5 percent of the guys washed, compared with 84 percent of the gals. Chicago is reportedly the cleanest city for both genders, followed closely by New York City.

Other stats to quote: "Nearly three-fourths of Americans said they always wash up after changing a diaper, 78 percent said they do so after handling or eating food, 42 percent after petting a dog or cat, 25 percent after handling money, and 34 percent after coughing or sneezing."

I guess that 78 percent isn't objectively bad, but it does seem to imply that Americans consider handling food to be a dirtier experience than changing a diaper full of poop. (Also, they're washing their hands after eating or handling food, which seems like the wrong order in which to do things.) And as for the gender difference, I'm sitting here trying to come up with a rational explanation for it ... like, you know, that women's bathrooms are grosser than men's bathrooms and therefore make women feel more of a need to wash up. Except that I've snuck into men's bathrooms when the line's too long, and can say from personal observation that men piss on the floor. So there goes that theory. Maybe it's because women have to go into stalls to pee, and that requires touching nasty doors and toilet handles -- whereas men only have to touch their penises, which presumably are cleaner. Any takers on that one? No? Um, the lines for the men's room are so annoyingly long that guys don't have time to wash? Wait a second ...

Regardless of the underlying reasons, those statistics are pretty disturbing, especially when you consider that it's the start of flu season. I'm not saying that we all should start carrying around individual bottles of hand sanitizer (and just because I use a paper towel to open the bathroom door once I've washed my hands doesn't mean it's something for everyone). But as the daughter of a nurse, I feel I'm speaking for my mother when I say this: For the love of God, people -- if you go to the bathroom, wash your damn hands!


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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