By Victoria Bey
A single important act — hand washing — can prevent disease both in hospital settings and in the community. Children are taught handwashing from a young age, and, thanks to the public health efforts of multiple national and worldwide organizations, routine handwashing has become commonplace in a variety of public settings.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), handwashing with soap can reduce respiratory illnesses by more than 20% and diarrheal illnesses by up to 58%. It’s commonly thought that women are better at washing their hands than men, and published research seems to support this. The real question is: Why? What about women, from their experiences to innate habits, make them better at washing their hands?
Women vs. Men: Hand Washing Frequency
A study conducted by Harris Interactive® in 2007 noted vast differences between men and women when it came to handwashing. Created for the American Society of Microbiology and the Soap and Detergent Association, the study sought to capture how the genders differ in their report and practice of handwashing.
First, researchers conducted telephone interviews to get a baseline of each gender’s reported hand washing frequency and found that 92 percent of all respondents reported washing their hands after certain tasks, such as using the restroom, changing a diaper, or handling their pet.
Next, researchers observed the handwashing habits of men and women in public restrooms across the country, including New York City’s Grand Central Station and San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal Farmers Market, to see whether reality aligned with survey results. What they found in each city was that women consistently washed their hands more than men, with the highest percentage (95 percent) observed at Turner Field in Atlanta, GA.
From these results, we can surmise that women wash their hands in the restroom more frequently than men, and practice can indeed make perfect. But, research also shows that women may be better at washing their hands for psychological reasons.
Women Are More Patient Than Men
Handwashing standards published by the CDC indicate that hands should be washed with clean, running water while scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but if you were to sit and silently count to yourself, 20 seconds can feel like a lifetime. Women may be better at handwashing than men because they are more patient when it comes to time consuming tasks. A study conducted among women in a remote Indian village revealed that women, especially those with children under the age of 18, were consistently more patient when making decisions.
Women May Approach Daily Situations with More Care
According to research, women tend to put a higher value on small activities that lead to a healthier lifestyle with less adverse risk. A study, published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, explores the nuances of this theory by breaking down sentiment toward risky behaviors in different domains, including gambling, recreation, social, and health.
That research indicates that in the arena of health, women are more likely to identify activities that carry a higher probability of risk — such as poor eating habits — and are less likely to engage in those activities than men may be. Because failure to wash one’s hands presents negative consequences, such as acquiring infections or harming others through the transmission of germs, women may engage in good hand hygiene more because of a desire to mitigate those risks for both themselves and their loved ones.
Women May Perceive More Reason to Wash Hands
It’s also possible that women may perceive more reasons, particularly in a public restroom, to wash their hands. Women do tend to have to touch more items in the restroom, including stall doors, whereas men are often able to make use of public urinals. Women may simply be responding to what they perceive as an increased threat, and some men feel that washing their hands means unnecessarily touching more potentially germ-covered fixtures. In a survey conducted by Bradley Corporation, men were almost 2.5 times more likely to say they simply “didn’t feel the need” to wash their hands after using a public restroom than women were. And many men cited unclean sinks or a lack of soap in the bathroom as a reason they didn’t wash their hands.
Between women’s tendency to make patient, healthy choices and social motivation to follow recommendations, women do tend to be better at handwashing when compared with men. However, there are a number of factors, such as environment, culture, access to sanitation supplies, and personal beliefs, that ultimately contribute to whether individuals of either gender practice good hand hygiene.
Victoria Bey is a freelance writer with a background in mental health and marketing. She writes on topics ranging from psychology to lead generation.