Getting children to wash their hands correctly and to use hand sanitizer when appropriate is a challenge that is becoming increasingly important to address for building service contractors that clean educational facilities.

“The problem we have with schools is actually getting kids to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer,” says George Brite, president of Brite Janitorial, Fort Worth, Texas. “Schools go through a lot less soap and hand sanitizer than you think they would.”

The Washington, D.C.-based American Cleaning Institute’s (ACI) “Healthy Schools, Healthy People” program does much to promote hand washing within schools. Nancy Bock, vice president of consumer education, boils healthy hand hygiene down to three main areas: the products, the equipment and the mechanical action of hand washing.

“It’s not just the soap, it’s also the equipment (the sinks, the soap dispensers and the hand dryers), and the action of properly washing hands,” she says.
Better hand hygiene, she adds, begins with selecting the right products and equipment for the job then educating students and teachers in the mechanics.
More of these programs need to be in place, stresses Dock, who says research proves repetitive behavior and repetitive reminding works.

“Teachers have to step up their reminders to students, beginning at an early age,” Bock says.


Proper hand washing

Clean hands save lives, touts the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


It’s a known fact that diseases and conditions are spread by not washing hands with soap and clean, running water, the organization reports. If clean, running water is unavailable, then the CDC recommends individuals use hand sanitizer to clean their hands.

In fact, hand washing combined with hand sanitizing has been proven to reduce gastrointestinal illnesses and respiratory problems among student populations by as much as 30 percent, according to Steven Brescia, owner of Pure Environment Maintenance Inc., Yonkers, N.Y. It’s a simple message but one that often leaves building service contractors faced with a dizzying array of soap and hand sanitizing products, scratching their heads.  

The CDC recommends wetting hands with clean running water, then applying soap and rubbing hands together for 20 seconds, being sure to get between fingers and underneath fingernails, and finally rinsing the hands under running water and drying them with a clean towel or a hand dryer.

“The golden rule is to use soap and water when hands are visibly dirty,” says Bock. “Hand sanitizers can be used when soap and water are not available and hands are not visibly dirty.”

The challenge in the school system then becomes which soaps are most economical and people-friendly, as the wrong soap choice can hinder the hand washing these products are designed to promote.

Choosing soap

Mark Bishop, vice president of policy and communications with the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign, recommends schools select green-certified soaps that reduce the impact on health and the environment. He recommends avoiding soaps with antibacterial properties as well as those with overpowering fragrances.


“Antibacterial soap is unnecessary,” he says. “Research has shown that properly washing hands is the most effective way to get rid of germs. We don’t need to kill them; we need to get rid of them. Exposing kids to antibacterial products is unnecessary and creates an exposure for human health and wastewater.”

Fragrances, in addition to being potentially offensive to personal odor preferences, provide unwanted exposure to vulnerable populations, especially among asthmatics.  

“You don’t know how fragrances are going to affect children,” says Brescia. “They might cause an allergic or asthmatic reaction. You want to stay as neutral as possible with children.”

If the school district prefers fragrance in their soaps, Bishop recommends opting for fragrances using essential oils rather than synthetic fragrances and selecting a fragrance recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program.

Brescia prefers foam soaps to their liquid counterparts, which can become unsafe and unsightly, in school settings.

Foam soaps promote hand washing because kids like it. Though children are more apt to use foam soap because they find it fun to play with, Brescia says schools using foam soaps actually purchase less product because less soap is wasted.

“It’s far more economical than liquid soap,” he says. “People tend to use less because it comes out in volume, so you can save 30 to 40 cents on the dollar by switching to foam soaps.”

While proper soap and hand sanitizer selection is important, it means little if the student population doesn’t use the products.

“You can’t just think about hand washing during an outbreak,” Bock says. “It needs to be part of the routine business of the school, every day that school is in session.”

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.