Handwashing is considered to be the most effective way of reducing cross-infection. Rates of healthcare-associated infection and the incidence of meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus are higher in the UK than in many other European countries. The government has responded by introducing the 'CleanYourHandsCampaign' throughout England and Wales, based on the success of the approach employed in Geneva. Alcohol hand rub is placed at every bedside in acute hospitals, ward housekeepers should replenish supplies and feedback on compliance is provided to health workers. Posters and other promotional materials are used to remind health workers and visitors to use the hand rub. Patients are encouraged to ask health workers if they have cleaned their hands before contact. In this paper we argue that the evidence base underpinning the CleanYourHandsCampaign is incomplete. Alcohol hand rub is acknowledged as a useful adjunct to hand hygiene but it is not effective in all circumstances. There is some evidence to support the use of feedback on performance to encourage compliance but no evidence that promotional materials such as posters or patient reminders are effective. The ethics of encouraging hospital patients to take responsibility for their own safety is questioned. Much of the success in Geneva must be attributed to the attention given to contextual factors within the organization that encouraged hand rub use, especially hospital-wide 'ownership' of the initiative by managers and senior health professionals. A customized intervention from another country that fails to consider local organizational factors likely to influence the implementation of the campaign is unlikely to be effective. It is concluded that although hand hygiene is of undoubted importance, undue emphasis should not be placed on it as a 'quick fix' to solve the unacceptably high rates of healthcare-associated infection in National Health Service hospitals.