Only 12% of people wash their hands before eating

Hand Washing before eating copy

Only 12% of people wash their hands before eating – despite them being more unhygienic than a park bench or escalator rail

•    Experts recommend washing hands for around 30 seconds, despite most people thinking 15 seconds is long enough

•    From escalator handrails to park benches, the most bacteria ridden swabs were still hundreds of times cleaner than the average pair of hands

  1. The human hand harbours more harmful bacteria than public surfaces, a new study has found.
  2. Researchers found the average pair of human hands is more unhygienic than escalators and benches in busy shopping centres and parks.
  3. Yet only one in eight people always wash their hands before eating, the study shows.
  4. Swabs taken from dirty looking surfaces in St Albans city centre and Luton Town Mall revealed a surprising lack of harmful bugs.
  5. The average pair of human hands is more unhygienic than escalators and benches in busy shopping centres and parks
  6. From escalator handrails to park benches, the most bacteria ridden swabs were still hundreds of times cleaner than the average pair of hands.
  7. It means hands are far more likely to make us unwell than the apparently filthy surfaces in and around cafes and fast food restaurants we try to avoid.
  8. Laboratory tests on 25 samples from tables, benches, escalator handrails, high chairs and children’s ride-on toys which looked stained, dirty and worn found hardly any harmful bacteria including staphylococcus, E.coli and enterobacteriaceae, which has been linked to deaths.


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The reading was so low that the bacteria were either not present or were but only in tiny quantities, in most cases fewer than 10 per square cm.

The overall quantity was relatively low with 33,000 the worst example, a wooden public bench.

Meanwhile, the average person carries more than 10 million bacteria on the hands alone and a University of Arizona study found a typical kitchen sponge will contain several million.

Meanwhile, a parallel survey found 92 per cent would avoid dirty looking tables and seats, citing health as the primary concern.

By contrast, just 13 per cent would avoid eating unless they had washed or cleansed their hands.

Two years ago a UK study found faecal germs are present on 26 per cent of hands.


•    There can be more than 1,000 resident bacteria per cm2 on your hand
•    By encouraging hand washing, illness can be reduced by 30 – 50 per cent
•    Under optimal conditions, bacteria can grow extremely rapidly and can double every 20 minutes
•    Damp hands spread 1,000 times more bacteria than dry hands
•    Contaminated hands regularly transfer viruses to many different surfaces or objects
•    Bacteria can stay alive on hands for up to three hours
•    Many bacteria grow best at a temperature of 37°C – our body temperature
•    The typical office worker’s hands come into contact with 10 million bacteria per day
•    Face or hand cream tubes in handbags can have more surface bacteria than the average toilet seat
•    Handles of handbags are home to more bacteria than the average toilet seat


The UN estimates hand washing alone could save more than a million lives a year from diarrhoeal diseases and prevent respiratory infections.

Bola Lafe, founder of water sanitisers Aquaint, which commissioned the research, said: ‘This study highlights the fact people avoid what they believe will make them unwell.

‘In fact, we need to narrow the lens when it comes to spotting potential risks to health.

‘Our hands operate a highly effective public transport network for bacteria and viruses. During the course of a day, we all touch hundreds of surfaces and have varying attitudes to hand washing.

‘This is totally out of our control so rather than just avoiding certain areas, good hand hygiene should be the top priority.

‘Our hands are in frequent contact with our mouths or with items that we put in our mouths, making them the fastest route to illness.’

He added: ‘A dirty table is not pleasant but neither is it dangerous by default.

‘By contrast, a gleaming shiny table could well be harbouring high levels of potentially dangerous bacteria. The lesson is unless you have cleaned your hands as well as the surface, it is a lottery.’

A second study, conducted by Initial Washroom Hygiene, found almost a quarter of people out on their lunch break were carrying potentially elevated levels of bacteria on their hands.

Around 300 people’s hands, handbags, mobile phones and other personal items were swabbed at an event in central London.

Researchers found 56 of the 234 people who offered their hands for testing were carrying potentially high levels of bacteria, which could indicate a high risk of cross-contamination.
Hand washing with soap removes germs from hands which helps prevent infections because:

•    People frequently touch their eyes, nose, and mouth without even realising it
•    Germs can get into the body through the eyes, nose and mouth and cause illness
•    Germs from unwashed hands can get into foods and drinks while people prepare or consume them
•     Germs can multiply in some types of foods or drinks, under certain conditions, and make people ill   
•    Germs from unwashed hands can be transferred to other objects, like handrails, table tops, or toys, and then transferred to another person’s hands
•    Removing germs through hand washing therefore helps prevent diarrhoea and other infections and can help prevent skin and eye infections

PUBLISHED: 1 August 2014 |

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