March 5, 2021

The reason why some people don’t wash their hands

There are millions of non-hand-washers hiding among us. Why won’t they adopt this simple hygiene habit – and how can we change their minds?
“My 2019 resolution is to say things on air that I say off air…” – the famous last words of Pete Hegseth last year, just before he revealed a secret that set the internet alight.

At the time, Hegseth was best known as a Fox News presenter who had a sprinkling of controversial views. Then he said: “I don’t think I’ve washed my hands for 10 years.” Cue a collective wrinkling of noses, and a frenzy of articles about what might be on your hands after a decade.

Disconcertingly, Hegseth is in good company; in 2015 the actress Jennifer Lawrence dropped the bombshell that she almost never washes her hands after going to the bathroom. (They both later said they had been joking). That same year, the Republican Senator for North Carolina suggested that requiring restaurant employees to wash their hands was a classic example of over-regulation.

While 10 years is hopefully some kind of record, observant bathroom-users everywhere will already have noticed that non-hand-washers are alarmingly widespread. One study estimated that in 2015, just 26.2% of global bathroom visits with potential “faecal contact” were followed by hand washing with soap.

“It sounds like such a simple behaviour,” says Robert Aunger, an expert in evolutionary public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “But, you know, we’ve been working on it [getting people to wash their hands more] for 25 years and it’s still very low.”

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