Unlike many janitorial functions, cleaning your hands doesn’t require any bells or whistles; there are no special cleansers or cleaning equipment required. Plain old soap and water is all it takes to prevent the risk of spreading germs. For some people, however, even that is asking too much.

A study last summer by the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) found that 30 percent of people using restrooms in New York airports and 27 percent in Chicago airports didn’t stop to wash their hands. Even health care workers wash their hands only 40 percent of the time, according to the Hand Hygiene Resource Center (HHRC).

People don’t wash up, the non-profit HHRC says, because it is inconvenient, time-consuming, and causes skin irritation or dryness. With this knowledge, facility managers (particularly those in medicine or education) have become more interested in making hand washing easier. Building operators want to invest in hand-washing systems that make cleaning quick, effortless and non-irritable.

This newer focus on cleanliness represents a world of opportunity for distributors.

“If a customer is concerned about cleanliness, then they need a product that people want to use,” says Nick Spallone, general manager of Lake Tahoe Supply Co., Carson City, Nev. “If you put in products that are cheap, or dry the hands or create problems, people are less likely to use them.”

Price is quickly becoming less important in soap-purchasing decisions than fragrance, color (pink and white are most popular), ease of use, and how the product feels as it goes on and after it has dried.

“Cost isn’t really a huge issue with soaps,” says Kevin Ervin, sales manager for Dee Janitorial Supply in Chicago. “People are more concerned about getting something that won’t be harsh on the skin and dry their hands out. They also don’t want a cheap soap that is more water than anything. It has to be effective. A mild but effective cleaner counteracts any price problems.”

Spallone agrees: “I see a trend of better products going into our facilities,” he says. “There’s more of a focus on soap — good soap — than there ever was before.”

Showy Suds
What’s hot on the soap horizon? Anything that makes washing hands easier or more attractive to the end user.

“Most people don’t like touching dispensers in bathrooms,” says Spallone, who predicts an increase in the number of touch-free soap dispensers. “So if they can go in and not touch anything, they may be more likely to wash their hands.”

Touch-free goes hand in hand with people’s fear of germs.

“People are, and perhaps rightfully so, germaphobes,” says Ervin. “More people flush the toilet with their feet than their hands. The less they can touch of other people’s things, the better they feel.”

Two of the biggest areas of growth, however, may be waterless hand sanitizers and foam soaps.

“A lot of our school district customers are switching over to the sanitizers,” says Ervin. “It’s a convenience thing for them. They can set up a dispenser unit in the classroom, which allows the teacher to monitor the kids’ hand washing.”

Foam soaps are gaining popularity, too, and distributors already see room for improvements. Spallone thinks foam will be available in sink-mounted dispensers in no time. Peter C. Panagakos, vice president of operations for Strauss Paper Co., in Port Chester, N.Y., predicts that foam soaps will soon also be antibacterial (often called antimicrobial).

Combining foam and antibacterial soaps makes sense to Ron Salveson, president of Knapp Supply & Equipment Co., in Casper, Wyo. Antibacterials are by far the most popular among Knapp’s customers, but foam has quickly become the company’s second-most-popular soap.

Many facility managers like foam soaps because they can save money. It takes about 30 to 40 percent less product to do the same job as a liquid soap. It also takes less water to create bubbles, which saves water. Maintenance workers also appreciate the easy-to-clean qualities of this quick-drying soap.

“When you push the dispenser, you get less product,” says Spallone. “There is a savings on product and on labor involved in having to replenish the dispenser.” Newer foam dispensers have a large capacity, allowing for even fewer refills.

“Foam is a trend that will last,” says Panagakos. “It is the latest innovation that has the ability to allow distributors to command better-than-average margins if sold well.”

Continuing Controversy
Antibacterial soaps remain extremely popular among end users. They’ve been around for more than 30 years, but their staying power has been compromised in recent years thanks to controversy over their effectiveness.

Unlike soap and water, which simply remove germs from the hands, the ingredients in antibacterials are supposed to keep the number of germs on the hands at a reduced level for an extended period of time. But some recent studies have concluded that antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soap for daily hand washing. Some experts also fear that overuse of antibacterial soaps could create new breeds of resistant bacteria.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now recommends that health care workers (and the general public) use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, including towelettes and gels, rather than antimicrobial soaps, especially for everyday use.

“I think antibacterials work but we are definitely not promoting them as much as we used to,” says Spallone. “The positives are outweighed by the negatives. In fact, we’re doing a large installation for a school district and converting them away from an antibacterial to a good hand soap.”

Due to people’s fear of germs, however, it’s doubtful that antibacterials will ever fade away. “Antibacterial soaps are here to stay,” says Salveson. “They give the illusion of cleaner, better, easier, longer and whiter.”

The Old Standbys
Foams, sanitizers, and antibacterials have taken a lion’s share of the marketplace away from such old standbys as pink liquid and bar soaps.

“They are diminishing slightly,” says Ervin of the old favorites. “We don’t sell many bar soaps anymore. We do have some old, hardcore guys who want a [heavy-duty] hand soap that will peel the skin off. But we’re selling less of those and more of the, for a lack of a better term, high-tech soaps with the disinfectants built in.”

To keep bar soaps alive, many manufacturers have started to invest in making them prettier. Lodging customers are falling over for new spa-like bar soaps.

“Our lodging customers are putting in a better bar soap instead of a cheap wrapped one,” says Spallone. “They want something that is more appealing, like what you’d see on the boutique side.”

But not everyone has given up on pink lotion soap.

Strauss’ most popular soap is pink lotion soaps, “due to their economical pricing and ability to be interchangeable with other dispensers,” Panagakos says. “They are probably the best sellers and have become the commodity of the product offering. They will not disappear any time soon,” he adds.

Show ‘Em How It’s Done
When selling soaps of any kind, distributors can make a bigger impact (and win favor) by offering training to customers on proper hand-washing techniques.

Start by emphasizing the importance of hand washing, which according to the CDC, is one of the most important means of preventing the spread of infection. By washing correctly, people can greatly reduce the chances of spreading germs.

Customers should know that how they wash their hands is just as important as when and if you wash them. Just rinsing them quickly is not enough.

Many manufacturers offer sell sheets or personalized training for distributors. Another resource is the “American Society for Microbiology’s Take Action: Clean Hands Campaign.” Visit it online at www.washup.org.

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.