The effect of handwashing with water or soap on bacterial contamination of hands

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011 Jan;8(1):97-104. doi: 10.3390/ijerph8010097. Epub 2011 Jan 6.


Handwashing is thought to be effective for the prevention of transmission of diarrhoea pathogens. However it is not conclusive that handwashing with soap is more effective at reducing contamination with bacteria associated with diarrhoea than using water only. In this study 20 volunteers contaminated their hands deliberately by touching door handles and railings in public spaces. They were then allocated at random to (1) handwashing with water, (2) handwashing with non-antibacterial soap and (3) no handwashing. Each volunteer underwent this procedure 24 times, yielding 480 samples overall. Bacteria of potential faecal origin (mostly Enterococcus and Enterobacter spp.) were found after no handwashing in 44% of samples. Handwashing with water alone reduced the presence of bacteria to 23% (p < 0.001). Handwashing with plain soap and water reduced the presence of bacteria to 8% (comparison of both handwashing arms: p < 0.001). The effect did not appear to depend on the bacteria species. Handwashing with non-antibacterial soap and water is more effective for the removal of bacteria of potential faecal origin from hands than handwashing with water alone and should therefore be more useful for the prevention of transmission of diarrhoeal diseases.

Keywords: hygiene; infection; trial.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Diarrhea / prevention & control
  • Enterobacter / isolation & purification
  • Enterobacteriaceae / isolation & purification*
  • Enterococcus / isolation & purification*
  • Escherichia coli / isolation & purification
  • Hand Disinfection / methods*
  • Humans
  • Pantoea / isolation & purification
  • Shigella / isolation & purification
  • Soaps


  • Soaps