Does Handwashing in Public Washrooms Lead to Infections?

Two new studies have alarming evidence that handwashing might not be so hygienic after all

Credit: TV Week

Turns out your routine handwashing might not be so hygienic

Keeping your hands clean is important but some washrooms could expose you to even more infection

We all know the importance of washing our hands, but now two interesting studies put the benefits into a different light, all thanks to some so-called “advances” in methodology.

Could Soap in Public Washrooms Do More Harm than Good?

The first suggests that soap containers in public washrooms may do more harm than good. Researchers from the American Society for Microbiology looked at bulk-soap refillable dispensers and found the liquid soap can become contaminated with bacteria.

The study examined community settings such as schools. At one school where soap dispensers were contaminated with bacteria from normal use, bacteria counts on the hands of students and staff were found to be increased 26 times after washing with that soap. Yikes.

Still, to put things into perspective, more study is needed to quantify the exact health risk from contaminated soap, but those with suppressed immune systems could be vulnerable.

The good news is that the research found that soap dispensers using sealed bag refills were best. In this study, after a year of use, not one of these types of dispensers was found to be contaminated.

Hands-free Faucets May Not Be as Clean as You Think

And there’s more. The next time you wash your hands at a hands-free faucet (where a motion sensor or touch activates water flow), spend some extra time scrubbing. A new study suggests these electronic faucets may not be as clean as intended.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University tested the faucets in their own hospital and identified the waterborne bacteria Legionella (which causes the respiratory illness known as Legionnaires’ disease) growing in about half the water samples taken from faucets near patient rooms. Traditional faucets in the same areas only grew the bacteria in 15 per cent of the samples.

The researchers believe that a hospital’s standard method of disinfection does not work well on these more complex faucets, which have five or more electronic parts that are difficult to clean. Also, researchers say these types of faucets don’t flow or flush well.

This study is not the first to show problems with hands-free faucets as a continuing source of bacteria. But healthy people likely do not need to avoid them. In the case of hands-free faucets, hospital patients may be at risk because they’re more susceptible to infection and have increased bacterial exposures from faucet contamination as they tend to use the same sink and faucet during their hospital stay.

Wash Your Hands the Right Way

Lastly, when you do wash your hands with soap and water, be sure to wash long enough. Think about singing the tune “Happy Birthday” — twice. Scrub the two most commonly missed areas: the fingertips and thumbs.

Research also shows that if your hands don’t look dirty, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer left on the hands for 15 seconds is actually more effective than soap and water in reducing bacteria and some viruses.

Originally published in TV Week. For daily updates, subscribe to the free TV Week e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.