Can We All Please Just Stop Shaking Hands?

Scientists explain why everyone should nix handshakes to avoid disease

Robert Roy Britt
Elemental
Published in
7 min readMar 4, 2020

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Photo: Yoshiyoshi Hirokawa/Getty Images

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DDavid Whitworth is not a fan of handshakes. The biologist at Aberystwyth University in Wales thinks humans should move away from the formality altogether. “I avoid shaking hands, and absolutely refuse to [do it] if I know I have a cold, or if there is a cold going around the workplace,” he says. “I also explain why I’m refusing, and hopefully educate other people to not spread germs through shaking hands.”

Whitworth has witnessed firsthand just how unhealthy handshakes can be compared to some alternative greetings.

In an experiment back in 2014, he had one person in the study dip their hand into a container filled with bacteria, then shake hands with another person. (Both wore sterile gloves, thankfully.) After the recipient’s glove was dry, Whitworth measured the bacteria on it. The experiment was repeated with high fives and fist bumps.

A handshake transfers almost twice as many bacteria as a high five, and “significantly fewer” bacteria are passed along in a fist bump compared to a high five, the researchers concluded in the American Journal of Infection Control. In all three greetings, longer duration of contact and stronger grips increased transmission. Whitworth says the results would likely apply to germs besides bacteria, including viruses, which cause the common cold, the flu and the new coronavirus that’s spreading around the globe.

“I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t move away from the handshake, and I think we are probably already doing so,” he tells Elemental. “Adoption of the fist bump as a greeting could substantially reduce the transmission of infectious diseases between individuals. We shouldn’t be paranoid about touching other people, but when we know transmissible disease is around, we should be extra cautious.”

His advice for anyone concerned about coronavirus: Try a nod, a smile, or a wave. “I would avoid any greeting which involves contact,” he says. “If people feel the need to touch, then a swift fist bump or similar would be much better than a handshake.”

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Robert Roy Britt
Elemental

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB