According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), proper and frequent handwashing is the number one way to prevent the spread of cold and flu germs. For the past several years, organizations like the American Cleaning Institute (ACI), the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and the CDC have aggressively promoted the benefits of handwashing to the media and the general public. It looks like these efforts are really beginning to pay off.

A recent observational study jointly sponsored by ACI and ASM revealed that 85% of adults washed their hands in public restrooms, compared with 77% in 2007. The 85% total was actually the highest observed since these studies began in 1996. The results were announced in August at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, an infectious disease meeting sponsored by ASM.

In a separate telephone survey, 96% of adults said they always wash their hands in public restrooms, a percentage that has remained relatively constant over the years. A majority of those interviewed (89%) said they always washed their hands after using the bathroom at home.

How the Observational Study Was Conducted
On behalf of ASM and ACI, Harris Interactive discreetly observed 6,028 adults in public restrooms to note if people washed their hands. Researchers returned to six locations in four cities where two previous studies were conducted: Atlanta (Turner Field), Chicago (Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium), New York City (Grand Central Station, Penn Station), and San Francisco (Ferry Terminal Farmers Market).

How We Did
When it comes to handwashing diligence, the women outdo the men. The rate of women washing their hands in public restrooms improved from 88% in 2007 to 93% in 2010. Men, on the other hand, did better than in previous studies but, depending on the venue, they sometimes strike out. More than three-quarters of the men (77%) washed their hands publicly in 2010, compared to 66% in 2007. At sporting venues (i.e. Chicago's Turner Field), barely two-thirds (65%) of the men washed their hands. On the other hand (pun intended), Turner Field brought out the best in women's handwashing among all venues: 98%.

What We Learned
"The message is that people are getting the message," says Nancy Bock, Vice President of Consumer Education at the American Cleaning Institute. "Between mom's common sense advice and the recent pandemic scare, people now seem to realize the importance of when and how you wash your hands."

More Americans now report that they always wash their hands after changing a diaper (82%), an increase from 2007 (73%). Women are better than men at this practice: 88% of the women say they always wash their hands after diaper duty, compared to 80% of the men.

There is still room for improvement. In the telephone survey, those who said they always clean their hands before handling or eating food is staying about the same: 77% in 2010, compared to 78% in 2007. Among women, 83% said they clean their hands before touching their food; just 71% of men say they do. And, only 39% of Americans say they always wash their hands after coughing or sneezing.

What to Do
We should all be vigilant handwashers — both for our own health and for the health of those around us. Here's how to do it properly:

Wet hands with warm running water. Then apply soap.
Rub hands together vigorously to make a lather and scrub all surfaces. Continue for 20 seconds, which is about how long it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.
Rinse well under warm, running water.
Dry hands thoroughly using paper towels or an air dryer. If possible, use paper towels to turn off the faucet.
And if you're anywhere soap and water are out of reach, hand sanitizers or hand wipes are good alternatives for keeping your hands clean.