Handshakes and hygiene

The simple handshake is something that we see or experience all the time. From graduation ceremonies, to job interviews, to the end of tennis matches at Wimbledon – the clasping of hands as a greeting, to offer congratulations, thanks, or seal a deal, is commonplace.

It’s something that has endured for many years too – the Acropolis Museum in Athens has a wall piece from the late 5th century BC showing goddesses Hera and Athena shaking hands.

However, a study published in the August edition of the American Journal of Infection Prevention, suggested that bumping fists may be a more hygienic alternative to shaking hands. Experiments conducted at Aberystwyth University tested three different greetings to assess the amount of germs transferred from each contact.

It was found that the highest number of germs was passed on during a handshake; this was reduced by over half during a ‘high five’; while bumping fists lowered germ transfer by a huge 90 per cent.

This interesting and quirky story was picked up by many news outlets, and received a lot of publicity – online and in print. I don’t think it will signal the end for the handshake as we know it, but it does help to raise awareness about the need for hand hygiene, and the invaluable role it can play in reducing the spread of germs and infections.

My colleagues across the Atlantic Ocean have even used this as an opportunity to reward college students for their innovative thoughts on the subject.

‘Shake Your Way to $5K’ is a Purell University promotion, which asks students to create and record an up to 15-second video that shows an original, creative handshake. Once all the videos have been submitted, 10 finalists will be selected by a panel of judges, and these will then be put to a public vote.

Students were chosen as the target for the promotion because they are often in contact with many different people during the course of the academic day. The campaign aims to place hand hygiene at the top of the agenda for educational establishments – with awareness raised in other sectors thanks to the ensuing publicity.

It emphasises the importance of this issue in a fun and memorable way, which it’s hoped will encourage good hand hygiene habits.

I believe that the handshake is well worth preserving. By practising sensible hand hygiene immediately after a handshake – by washing hands or using hand sanitising gel – we can continue to use this traditional sign of goodwill, peace and respect with no undue health risk.