A personal obsession with hand hygiene

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I have a lifelong ambition to maintain perfect hand hygiene. You keep your corporate ladder, one-and-a-half kids, world travel, and work-life balance dreams. I strive only for consistently clean hands. In fact, whenever I face the ice breaker question, “what super power would you want if you could have one,” (which is surprisingly often) I always think perfect hand hygiene, even though I say, “travel at the speed of light” (peer pressure is real, especially as an adult).

I’m not a hypochondriac (anymore, at least, but fifth grade was rough). And I’m not one of those people who covers their soup spoon with a tissue to protect it from airborne germs for the few seconds it’s exposed to the world between the bowl and their mouth. I don’t harbor weird idiosyncrasies, and by no definition am I obsessive compulsive. I just like having clean hands.

I didn’t even like to get my hands dirty as a toddler. My parents thought I was weird. They probably still do. I ended up pretty normal, though, getting my hands into all kinds of messes: messes at school, messes at home, messes from sports, messes from internships, messes from girlfriends (I once dated a female sanitation worker).

There’s just something about knowing your hands are clean that feels so goddamn good. You can touch your face, pick your teeth, and even eat handheld foods (I find breakfast sandwiches the most satisfying food to eat with clean hands). The world is your oyster when you have fresh hands — but I wouldn’t touch an oyster, of course — its ocean juices are teeming with all kinds of things that exist simply to make your hands dirty. What’s more, clean hands give you the simple but powerful satisfaction of a job well done as an adult. Clean hands exude a certain intentionality and thoughtfulness.

Then, of course, there’s the scientific angle to all of this. One particularly compelling insight comes from researchers in London, who estimated that if everyone routinely washed their hands, a million deaths a year could be prevented [1]. Maybe you like high death rates, that’s your baggage but even an estimate of a million people a year spared by just using some soap and water properly is crazy. Apparently, proper hand washing is more difficult than I assumed, though — a recent observational study conducted by Michigan State University found that on average, the people who were observed washed their hands for only six seconds, and around 33 per cent of the 3,749 people observed didn’t use soap [2]. I’m speechless.

The problem standing in the way of my dream of clean hands is twofold — 1) the world is dirty, and 2) I live in said world. Much as I try to scrub my brain of the urge to lather and rinse, I can’t (sometimes I even repeat the process, depending on the category of mess and the level to which my hands were involved). There are seven categories of mess (obviously). 1) Icky. An icky mess is a just a bit off-putting, your day-to-day what’s on the counter at work type of mess 2) Yucky…the grosser cousin of icky 3) Shit…self-explanatory 4) Other bio-hazardous waste — you know, sweat, blood, and other human/animal fluids 5) Outdoors/biology that’s brightly colored—anything from dirt to molds and mildews. 6) Blue collar — your greases, grimes, and generally anything that gets on you during manual labor, and 7) Hospitality — I’ve been in enough hotels to award the industry its own category (congratulations, Marriott International).

I had a close call the other day that threatened what was otherwise a great day of hand hygiene. I squirmed onto a packed metro in Washington, D.C., where I live. Rush hour forced warm flesh against warm flesh. I opted for a surfer type of stance instead of grabbing the hand railing hanging from the ceiling. Suddenly, the metro conductor lurched the train around a metal bend, bucking me like a mechanical bull. In desperation, I shot both hands up towards the ceiling and gripped the exposed bar. It was wet. Fuck, I thought. A wet metro handlebar. It could be anything.

The situation set in as I realized I couldn’t touch the little song-changing piece on my headphones to change the song (I felt distressed but still really not in the mood for Modest Mouse). I couldn’t wipe my hands on my pants either. They didn’t deserve that (I’m weirdly empathetic when it comes to pants — they have a thankless job). I took deep breaths as the metro came to a stop and the doors shunted open at my stop. Logic pounced and it hit me that I couldn’t touch my metro card. And even if/after I figured my way out of that conundrum, I would have to touch my keys to get into my apartment building, and my backpack — my backpack! — and it’s defenseless zippers to get to the keys. I ran-walk like a panicky white dad with my hands held just far enough away from my sides to look awkward.

The only thing that’s sure in life when you have an ambitious goal is that you’re going to fail in some way in your pursuit. It’s a constant battle. That day, I lost the battle and touched everything with wet metro hands. Tomorrow is another day, and the experience has only made me more determined. I will have clean hands.

. . .


[1] Curtis V, Camicross S. Effect of washing hands with soap on diarrhoea risk in the community: A systematic review. Lancet Infect Dis. 2003;3(5):275–81.

[2] https://www.livescience.com/37326-bathroom-hand-washing-habits.html

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