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Chemical Reaction: The Power of Soap


  • Figure 1: America’s Hand-washing Habits

    Figure 1: America’s Hand-washing Habits

    2006 Soap and Detergent Association Survey

    Approximately how many times do you wash your hands on an average day? 

    • 1–2 times 5%
    • 3–4 times 11%
    • 5–6 times 18%
    • 7–10 times 24%
    • More than 10 times 42%
    • Don’t know 2%

    When you wash your hands, how long do you typically lather them or rub them with soap?

    • Less than 10 seconds 13%
    • 10–15 seconds 32%
    • 15–20 seconds 21%
    • More than 20 seconds 28%
    • Don’t know 3%

    How often do you wash your hands after going to the bathroom?

    • Always 92%
    • Frequently 5%
    • Seldom 2%
    • Never 1%

    How often do you wash your hands before eating lunch?

    • Always 68%
    • Frequently 20%
    • Seldom 8%
    • Never 2%
    • Don’t know 2%
By: Steve Herman
Posted: October 7, 2008, from the October 2008 issue of GCI Magazine.

“Soap and water and common sense are the best disinfectants.” —William Osler

National Clean Hands Week took place Sept. 21–27, 2008. With so much emphasis on the latest and greatest products and technology, we sometimes overlook the usefulness of our oldest and most basic products—including soap. Familiar to ancient cultures, soap has recently been instrumental for saving millions of children in Africa, and the key components of this—in addition to soap itself—were marketing and a woman with a mission.

Hand washing is constantly monitored by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) because of its importance in preventing the spread of illness, and the agency’s “Ounce of Prevention” campaign is done in cooperation with Reckitt Benckiser.1 The educational program also encourages the use of alcohol-based products when water is not available, particularly during an emergency, and the brochure recommends washing with soap and water for 20 seconds to be effective, long enough to sing Happy Birthday twice. The Soap and Detergent Association also surveys soap use,2 and some 2006 results are shown in Figure 1. Regardless of individual washing habits, the average American lives in a sanitary environment with many health controls in place. The chances of contracting a fatal disease in developed countries is nothing remotely like the Third World situation.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the AIDS crisis has received great attention. Treatment is expensive and not widely available. But for children, dysentery is far more serious than AIDS in terms of fatalities, and prevention can be surprisingly simple—hand washing with soap. What is not simple is implementation of this solution in impoverished societies. Habits must be changed, and that can only be done through understanding the forces shaping the target society.

Dysentery is an infection of the digestive system that results in severe diarrhea. It is typically the result of unsanitary water containing microorganisms, which damage the intestinal lining. There are two major types of dysentery due to microorganisms: amoebic and bacillary. The consequence for children already in poor health is often death. Val Curtis is an anthropologist who heads the Hygiene Center at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She studied diarrheal disease in Africa and analyzed hygiene behavior in developing countries for many years. She is currently researching the health impacts of hand washing, the effectiveness of consumer marketing in changing hygiene behavior and Darwinian approaches to promoting health. She is particularly interested in the function of disgust and its relationship to hygiene.