Faecal matter can be found on just over a quarter of our hands, new research suggests. In some cases the amount of germs is equivalent to the number in a dirty toilet bowl. So why are the British so bad at washing their hands?

Poo, it's getting everywhere. Faecal bacteria is present on 26% of hands in the UK, 14% of bank notes and 10% of credit cards, according to new research carried out by hygiene experts from Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL) and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). It has been published to promote the UN's Global Handwashing Day.

They say one of the biggest shocks is the level of germs. Findings suggest 11% of our hands are so "grossly contaminated" they are carrying as many germs as a dirty toilet bowl. It's the same for 8% of cards and 6% of notes. We already know faecal matter can be found on one in six mobile phones.

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What's on our hands?

The average person's hands carry at least 3,000 different bacteria
They belong to more than 100 species
Everyone has a unique bacteria "fingerprint"
You can identify a person from the bacteria they leave behind after touching an inanimate object
Bacteria can remain unchanged on an object after two weeks at room temperature
Source: University of Colorado Boulder

BBC Health: What causes infections?
BBC Health: Stop E.coli breeding in your home
"People may claim they wash their hands regularly but the science shows otherwise," says QMUL's Dr Ron Cutler, who led the study.

The British are particularly bad, other research suggests. Many of us also lie and claim we have washed our hands when we haven't, especially after going to the toilet.

In a recent UK-wide study, 99% of people interviewed at motorway service stations toilets claimed they had washed their hands after going to the toilet. Electronic recording devices revealed only 32% of men and 64% of women actually did.

Even when faced with a serious health threat, many still don't bother. More newly published findings, this time from an international study by Harvard University, suggest only 53% of people washed their hands more frequently during the 2009 swine flu pandemic. It looked into how people changed their behaviour to reduce the spread of the H1N1 virus, and the British were the worst of the five countries studied.

Do you wash your hands properly? Children at Knights Enham Junior School, Andover, show you how
The British approach to hand washing is often "bizarre" and "peculiar", say hygiene experts. So what is our problem? A lot comes down to perception and how we see ourselves, also to a lack of understanding about the simplest hygiene.

"It's peculiar but many people in the UK don't think they carry any diseases," says Dr Lisa Ackerley, a consultant in environmental hygiene and co-founder of Hygiene Audit Systems. "They live in a country with modern facilities and think things are clean."

Most people are taught to wash their hands from an early age. When there is a major health scare, the Department of Health runs education campaigns, such as swine flu's "Catch it, bin it, kill it" campaign. But still some people don't link it with stopping the spread of germs.

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The man who got us to wash our hands

Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis discovered the role of hand washing in preventing cross-infection in 1847
While working in a Viennese maternity clinic he realised doctors were transferring infections by moving from dissecting corpses to examining new mothers without washing their hands
He introduced hand washing rules and deaths were drastically reduced
His ideas were initially rejected by the establishment and he was shunned
He didn't live to see them accepted, dying in a mental asylum after a breakdown in 1865
Source: Science Museum

BBC History: Victorian medical discoveries
What diseases are infectious?
"People in the UK are worried about infections, we know that," says Dr Cutler. "But often they don't associate dirty hands with infections until they actually get ill, it's rather bizarre. They think their hands are clean."

They're wrong of course. The average person's hands probably carry at least 3,000 different bacteria belonging to more than 100 species, according to US researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder.

We all have our own unique "bacterial fingerprint", says Prof Noah Fierer, who conducted the research.

"Bacteria on skin are like snowflakes, no two communities are alike," he says.

That even goes for your left and right hand. The study found a person's hands share only 13% of the same bacteria. Also, while women wash their hands more than men, they have a more diverse selection of germs living on them. Scientists don't know why, but says differences in sweat, hormones and even the use of makeup might be involved.

A lot of the different types of bacteria found on skin are not pathogens so do not cause disease, says Prof Fierer. Hand hygiene is more about not passing on the bad germs we pick up.

"The benefit of hand washing is that it removes those transient taxa [organisms] that a doctor, for example, may pick up from a diseased patient, or a cook may pick up from using the toilet and then potentially pass onto another individual," he says.

Sometimes bad hygiene is not down to laziness or a lack of awareness. Automatic behaviour is often subconscious and we simply don't think about what we're doing, says Dr Val Curtis, director of the Hygiene Centre at LSHTM.

"People often genuinely think they've washed their hands after going to the toilet when they haven't. People think their behaviour is under conscious control, but often it's not. They are mindlessly doing things."

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How to wash your hands properly

Wet hands, apply soap and rub palms together until soap is bubbly
Rub each palm over the back of the other hand
Rub between your fingers on each hand
Rub backs of fingers (interlocked)
Rub around each of your thumbs
Rub both palms with finger tips then rinse
Dry your hands well
Source: Global Hygiene Council

Step-by-step guide to washing hands properly
Food Programme: Britain's Food Safety Net
Of those that who do wash their hands, often they're doing it wrong. A quick wipe with water is not enough. You should use soap wherever possible and follow certain steps, like rubbing around your thumbs. If you wash your hands correctly it should take you the same length of time as singing Happy Birthday twice, say experts.

We should also do it more regularly, when we take out the bins or stroke a cat for example. The two most crucial times during the day are after toilet use and before eating. The study of bank notes and credit cards suggest only 39% of people wash their hands before tucking into some food.

It might not seem that important but the consequences of not washing your hands can be serious. Faecal matter is one of the most dangerous around, says Dr Curtis. It can survive on hands and surfaces for hours, especially in warmer temperatures away from sunlight.

"There are about one billion germs per gram in faecal matter," she says. "Even the smallest amount can leave millions of germs on your hands."

The British Olympic Association warned Team GB athletes not to shake hands during the London games this summer in case they caught a bug that might ruin their chances of success.

The UN says washing hands is the most cost-effective intervention for the worldwide control of disease. It estimates hand washing could save more than a million lives a year from diarrhoeal diseases and prevent respiratory infections, one of the biggest causes of child mortality in developing countries.

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  • 3

    protectedimage - handwashing:

    • Ertrov
    • October 15, 2012, 5:44 pm
    "H-H-Ho-How much poo?"
    - drakengard85 October 15, 2012, 7:41 pm
  • 1

    I wash my hands with anti bacterial soap every time I do anything related to 'private parts', whether it be mine or someone elses.
    I also can't stand when people don't wash their hands after having a piss, my brother does it all the time & I always have a go at him, and to think he touches the same door handles and stuff that I touch... I just try not to think about it!

    • TryThat
    • October 15, 2012, 8:29 pm
    There is no excuse for not doing it. only the lazy won't.
    - johnecash October 16, 2012, 2:52 pm
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