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'Wash Your Hands' Signs
Only Work for Women: Study
 

Signs that remind people to wash their hands after using public bathrooms tend to inspire women to boost their hygiene, but fail to do so in men, new research suggests.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that public-bathroom signs that say "please wash hands" caused women to more often use soap and water, but did not change men's hand-washing behavior.

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Dr. H. Durell Johnson and his colleagues obtained their findings by sending men and women to secretly observe people as they exited public restrooms on the campus of a large, northeastern university.

The results are based on observations of 95 women and 80 men, half of which were conducted before the researchers placed a sign in the bathroom reminding users to wash their hands.

Johnson and his team discovered that women tended to use soap and water more often than men, before and after the signs were posted.

After the signs were posted, women opted less often for the ineffective strategy of hand rinsing--using only water and no soap--and washed with soap more often.

But the signs had no effect on men's tendencies to either wash or rinse their hands after using the restroom, Johnson and his colleagues reported last week during the Annual Meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in Baltimore, Maryland.

"Female hand rinsing went down once the sign was placed, and their hand washing went up," Johnson said in an interview with Reuters Health.

But men, he added, "relatively stayed the same, regardless of the situation."

Johnson explained that simple signs reminding people to wash their hands may be more effective in women than in men because women have been taught from early in life to accept and follow social norms.

Seeing a sign that tells them to wash their hands may remind women that this is the socially accepted behavior, he said.

In contrast, many men may have been raised to be "more autonomous in their decision-making," to do what they want to do even if it goes against what is socially acceptable, Johnson added.

"If it's something they want to do, they're going to do it anyway," he said.

Johnson noted that the study likely overestimates how often people washed their hands because the participants knew someone else was in the restroom with them, and may have washed their hands--or pretended to have done so using hand rinsing--to avoid shame.

Consequently, some of the people who simply ran their hands under water "might have just walked out if somebody hadn't been there," Johnson said.

In restaurants, hospitals and other organizations where hygiene is especially important, supervisors looking to improve hand-washing rates among employees may want to rely on a device that uses ultraviolet lights to measure bacteria levels on the hands, Johnson suggested.

This technique may alert people to the importance of hand washing "by showing them how dirty their hands are after they use the bathroom and don't wash their hands," Johnson said.

Signs that inform people of the dangers of forgoing soap and water after using the restroom--rather than simply telling them they should--could also boost hygiene, the researcher added.


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