Only 5% of People Wash Their Hands Properly

Misconceptions about hand-washing are as rampant as the germs themselves

Robert Roy Britt
Published in
5 min readDec 3, 2019


A close up hand washing in the kitchen sink.
Photo: Moyo Studio/E+/Getty Images

WWhen a highly contagious stomach virus blew through a Colorado school district in November, sickening 30% of students and 20% of staff at one high school, some of the victims felt fine one hour and were vomiting in public the next. It was a reminder of how quickly viruses can make a lot of lives miserable. Especially during winter months. And especially when people don’t wash their hands often and properly.

Health experts agree that hand-washing is a vital defense against stomach-turning viruses, deadly bacteria, and other communicable germs including the flu, the common cold, and the particularly nasty norovirus thought to be the cause of the Colorado outbreak.

But there are several misconceptions regarding what works and what doesn’t and research finds most people just don’t get it. The key, science shows, is to wash the old-fashioned way, with soap and water and lots of scrubbing bubbles. And do it often, because the germs are everywhere. A quarter-teaspoon of infected diarrhea can have 5 billion norovirus particles, but it only takes 20 of them — which can fit on the head of a pin — to infect you.

Germs love to linger

A simple sneeze can transport flu virus particles across an entire room, an MIT study found. When a person infected with norovirus vomits, which they’re prone to do, microscopic virus particles “can travel in the air for up to 25 feet,” according to the health department that dealt with the Colorado outbreak. But you don’t have to walk through a sneeze or an invisible cloud of vomit to become infected.

According to the British National Health Service:

  • Common cold viruses can lurk alive on a person’s hand for more than an hour, eager for a handshake and a new host.
  • Flu viruses can remain viable up to 24 hours on hard surfaces like countertops.
  • MRSA, a bacteria that causes intractable, sometimes deadly staph infections, can endure for days or weeks on a variety of surfaces, awaiting your touch.

Viral outbreaks are more common in winter in part because viruses thrive in the



Robert Roy Britt

Founder/editor of Wise & Well on Medium & the Writer's Guide at & author of Make Sleep Your Superpower