WASHINGTON – The spread of the new coronavirus is shining a spotlight on a little-discussed gender split: Men wash their hands after using the bathroom less than women, research and observations show.
Health officials advise that regular hand-washing is one of the best weapons against the virus.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s online fact sheet “Handwashing: A corporate activity” cites a 2009 study that finds “only 31 percent of men and 65 percent of women washed their hands” after using a public restroom.
Social media comments about men’s hand-washing lapses forced an august British institution to caution visitors about bathroom behavior this week. After author Sathnam Sanghera complained on Twitter about “grown,” “educated” men in British Library toilets not washing their hands, the library put up additional signs reminding patrons to wash their hands. A spokesman said, “Visitors are reminded of the importance of good hygiene at exactly the point where they can wash their hands.”
Men and women approach hand-washing after using the restroom differently, according to multiple surveys and field studies.
“Women wash their hands significantly more often, use soap more often, and wash their hands somewhat longer than men,” according to a 2013 Michigan State University field study conducted by research assistants who observed nearly 4,000 people in restrooms around East Lansing.
The study found 14.6 percent of men did not wash their hands at all after using the bathroom and 35.1 percent wet their hands but did not use soap, compared to 7.1 percent and 15.1 percent of women.
“If you stand in the men’s bathroom at work and watch men leave, they mostly don’t wash their hands if they used the urinal,” said one New York City public relations executive, who did not want to be identified for fear of alienating his colleagues.
Since the virus’s spread, he has seen an uptick in men’s hand-washing at work, he noted. “I, for the record, do wash my hands all the time,” he added.
Female medical staffers in critical care units “washed their hands significantly more often than did their male counterparts after patient contact,” a 2001 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control found.
Middle-age women with some college education had the highest level of knowledge about hand hygiene, found a survey published in 2019 by BMC Public Health, an open-access public health journal.
Early information about coronavirus infection in China shows that men may be more susceptible to the disease. Just over 58 percent of the more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients reported in China through Jan. 29 were male, research published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows.
Researchers have not linked the difference to hand hygiene.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.