washing hands in sink

The Healthy Handwashing Survey by the Bradley Corporation finds that 93 percent of adults believe handwashing is essential to maintaining their overall health. 

However, when researchers took a deep dive into this sentiment, they found that 45 percent of respondents reported rinsing and running, i.e., rinsing their hands and skipping the soap. They also discovered that, as the pandemic winds down, handwashing rates are slipping. In 2020, 90 percent of Americans reported washing their hands more diligently because of the flu and/or coronavirus outbreaks. Today, 85 percent of respondents reported the same.  

Handwashing trends upward every time there is a widespread outbreak, but once the fear subsides, people wash their hands less, according to Keith Schneringer, senior director of marketing, Facility Care + Sustainability at San Diego-based WAXIE Sanitary Supply, an Envoy Solutions Company.  

For example, handwashing habits spiked with the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, then returned to normal levels. The same thing happened with COVID-19, he stresses. 

“Handwashing is still above what it was when we entered the pandemic, but it’s a lot lower than it was during the pandemic,” says Schneringer. “Though it’s fallen off slightly, I still think people are more germ conscious than they were.” 

Another trend of note is that during the pandemic people heavily focused on one aspect of hand hygiene — hand sanitizer. The general public focused on hand sanitizers and surface disinfection because they were focused on killing the virus, but studies show that’s gone down over time, too. 

Charles Moody, president of Solutex Inc., Sterling, Virginia, stresses as hand hygiene trends trail off, distributors play a key role in reigniting its role in health.  

“As a distributor, it’s our job to remind people that there are many things that can cause illness. COVID-19 is just one of them,” he says. “There is RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus), the norovirus, the flu, and handwashing is a key step to prevent all of these illnesses.” 

Moody emphasizes a good hand hygiene program does more than improve health. It also elevates a company’s brand. A business or school’s restrooms reflect the quality of the business or operation itself.  

“A well-stocked restroom that’s checked every 15 minutes promotes that the business, school or restaurant cares about its patrons, students and diners,” he says. 

Three Steps to Better Hand Hygiene 

The best way for distributors to restore emphasis to hand hygiene is to offer a three-step program, according to Schneringer.  

“Bundle products that wash, dry and sanitize,” he says. “Then if you want to get fancy, add in a lotion to protect hands in industries where workers must wash their hands frequently.”  

To get clients into a three-step program, distributors should emphasize hand hygiene’s importance, noting how it protects health and how improving occupant health can increase attendance and productivity. 

It's important to gather specifics about the facility. For example, distributors need to know who’s going to be using the products and how the building is used. Ask: 

  • How many people are in the facility each day?  
  • How often do people need to wash their hands?  

Who are the people coming through? A school filled with children will have different needs than an office building. An airport or stadium will have different needs than a restaurant. A factory will need soaps to remove specific types of grime. 

What is the budget? “You need to consider the economics, too. Most distributors offer different grades of quality, and you want to be sure you’re recommending the right solution for the situation and the budget,” says Schneringer.  

What aesthetic needs are there? A five-star restaurant might prefer a thicker paper towel and lightly scented soap, whereas a school might want thinner towels and dye-free, scent-free soap to protect children’s respiratory systems and allergies.  

“All of these considerations feed into the type of product you recommend,” emphasizes Schneringer. “The reason there are so many products is there are many situations where these products will be used.”  

Simply Soap 

The debate with soap centers on foam versus liquid soaps, according to experts. 

Foam soap, as the name implies, is a soap that is bubbly and sudsy. Soap dispensers inject the highly concentrated soap with air, transforming it into foam, before discharging it. Conversely, liquid soap is merely soap in liquid form.  

“One benefit with foam soap is you can get the same number of hands clean with less product just by the way it’s dispensed,” says Schneringer. “Sometimes with liquid soap the first dollop may not feel like enough, so people pump out more.” 

However, in school settings, students may play with foam soap, which can lead to greater use. Moody points out this is less of a problem now than a decade ago.  

“When foam soap first came out, our customers told us kids were pumping out baseball-sized globs to make a beard or do other silly things with it,” he says. “But over time it lost its novelty. We rarely hear about this issue anymore.”  

Another positive for foam, Moody points out, is that foam soap washes down the drain easier, which can lower cleaning needs and lengthen fixture life. On the flip side, the fact that liquid soap takes a longer time to rinse away can get hands cleaner.  

For distributors struggling to push liquid, there is a unit cost benefit worth highlighting. End users can get a gallon of liquid soap for approximately $3-$4. This is much lower than the initial cost of foam, but Moody explains that foam often produces more hand washes per ounce, meaning replacement frequency is less. 

“Many customers will opt for liquid soap to take advantage of the lower cost. But they do not factor in that there is decreased usage with foam soap,” he says. “Which product is best will vary depending on the situation. There is no right or wrong answer.” 

To the earlier point about distributors knowing the customer and facility they are selling to, recommending soap type will require knowledge of dispensing. Does the facility already have dispensers for liquid or foam, because each soap type will require a specific dispenser?  

“If you put foam liquid soap into a non-foaming dispenser, it will squirt out as liquid,” Moody explains. “If you put liquid soap into foam soap dispensers, the dispenser will get clogged. There are dispensers available that can handle both types. It’s important for distributors to make sure the dispenser matches the soap type.” 

Dryers vs. Towels 

When it comes to drying hands, everyone has an opinion. Regardless of where loyalties lie, distributors should consider the triple bottom line — cost, human health and environmental aspects — when outlining products for end users. 

“Ideally, distributors will recommend products that represent the best economic, environmental and human health decision,” says Schneringer. “Sometimes you can get things super cheap, but they are not as good for human health or the environment.”  

For example, before the pandemic, Envoy customers largely chose paper towels, which are faster, more convenient, and do a better job of drying people’s hands. Air dryers can get hands dry, Schneringer adds, but they also blow air throughout the restroom. 

“If air dryers are not properly maintained — with filters changed out regularly — they can introduce new bacteria onto freshly washed hands,” he says. “With paper towels, you are actually scraping more material off your hands, thus you wind up with cleaner hands. From a pure hand hygiene perspective, paper towels are better.”  

Moody adds that hand dryers should only be used in tiled restrooms, but explains that a dryer is a nice choice for end users who want to conserve paper and save trees.  

“Still, I don’t think they should take away paper towels completely,” he adds. “It has been proven that when you wash your hands, then dry with a paper towel, you remove more dirt than you do with a blower.”  

When it comes to paper options, there are a variety of quality products available. Which products distributors should recommend depends on the facility.  

“Some places may want to offer a Class A luxury experience, whereas others are more interested in the environmental profile of the product,” says Schneringer. “Those customers will value post-consumer recycled content and alternative fibers in their products. What is used really depends on the customer and what they are trying to accomplish.” 

A good restroom cleaning plan is also paramount. If paper towels are not restocked, people may forgo washing their hands, and if restrooms do not put a waste receptacle by the door, used paper towel ends up on the floor. Moody recommends working with customers to implement a product in restrooms that lets people kick open the door after washing their hands, so they do not have to touch door handles at all. 

Focus on Sanitizers 

In an overall hand hygiene program, sanitizer is an extra touchpoint. Here, distributors should consider traffic patterns and touch points to determine sanitizer dispenser placement. For instance, a facility might put hand sanitizer outside the restroom door for people to use after touching the door handle or in the lobby, so they can sanitize as they enter and leave the building.  

“It’s nice to have a hand sanitizer dispenser at the entrance, especially in a retirement home or healthcare center where people are immunocompromised,” Schneringer says. “It’s also nice as people exit because a healthcare worker may not want to bring germs home from the hospital to their families.”  

Fitness centers also may want to have hand sanitizers near gym equipment. Though most gyms supply wipes for equipment, it’s also nice to offer hand sanitizer for people’s hands. 

Distributors should conduct a walkthrough of a customer’s facility to help determine not only the location of dispensers, but also the quantity needed. The number of hand sanitizing stations found throughout facilities has definitely shifted over the years. 

“During the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon for facilities to have 20 to 30 stations,” Moody says. “That has definitely eased.” 

The type of sanitizer, be it gel or liquid, is also a consideration worth discussing with customers. Again, foam hand sanitizer will go further than liquid. But Moody says, “I prefer gel because it can spread around a little better. Gel makes up 80 percent of our sanitizer sales compared to 15-20 percent for alcohol foam sanitizer.” 

Other Considerations 

Whether discussing soap or sanitizer with customers, fragrance should be considered. A light fragrance signals to people that something is clean. However, it can be a problem with sensitive populations.  

“It’s nice when hand soap has a light fragrance,” Moody says. “Sometimes school systems go with fragrance-free, dye-free products. But overall, people tend to think something with a light scent and a little color gets things cleaner.”  

Signage also warrants consideration. Many soap companies offer signs to promote hand hygiene. These signs might display fun facts about handwashing or reminders to wash hands.  

“They need to say different things to motivate the audience, whether it’s children or adults. They can be artistic and use humor,” Moody says. “It’s always nice when they are branded by the business itself. For example, Chick-fil-A has branded signs in its restrooms.”  

Distributors play a vital role in increasing hand hygiene. Experts recommend providing products people want to use, education on the benefits of handwashing, and signage to promote a hand hygiene program. 

Ronnie Wendt is a freelance writer and owner of In Good Company Communications in Waukesha, Wisconsin.