Fear of Germs Threatening the Handshake

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Don't be surprised if your handshake is left hanging this cold and flu season. According to a recent survey commissioned by PURELL® Instant Hand Sanitizer, 2 in 5 American adults (nearly 92 million people) have hesitated to shake hands with someone because they were afraid of germs. What's more, 55 percent of Americans would rather touch a public toilet seat than shake someone's hand after they've coughed or sneezed into it.

Recent reports reveal that public hand washing is improving, but there isn't always a sink in the boardroom, on the playground or in the grocery store where people are greeting one another and shaking hands. With 3 in 5 (61 percent) Americans agreeing they would be less hesitant to shake hands if they had a bottle of hand sanitizer, there is still hope for this time-honored social institution.

Goodbye Handshake, Hello Fist Bump

-- Today, 4 in 5 Americans agree, people are shaking hands less frequently than they did 25 years ago.

-- What's more, roughly half of Americans (49 percent) have chosen the fist bump over a classic handshake, for reasons including fear of germs (15 percent), sweaty palms (13 percent) and dry hands (6 percent).

Cold and Flu Concerns


Following last year's H1N1 Swine Flu scare, Americans are bracing themselves for cold and flu season and hiding their hands. The majority of American adults (56 percent) believe that cold and flu germs are the worst part of winter handshake.

"Germs lurk everywhere. They can accumulate on our hands and spread to others when we shake hands," says Dr. Keri Peterson, an internist at Lenox Hill Hospital. "But there is no reason to refuse a handshake and miss out on this opportunity for camaraderie, or worse yet, risk offending a colleague, family member or friend. Practicing proper hand hygiene can help prevent the spread of germs and help keep the handshake alive. Sneeze and cough into the crux of your elbow, or use a tissue, and wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer like Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer after shaking hands and before touching your face."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), proper hand hygiene is the single best way to prevent infection and illness. When soap and water are not available, the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers is recommended to reduce the spread of germs that may cause illness.

Mom Always Said Manners Matter

-- About 3 in 4 (76 percent) American adults learned how to shake hands from a family member.

-- A majority of parents (74 percent) believe their child should learn how to properly shake hands when or before they start school.

-- However, 1 in 4 parents (25 percent) have actually encouraged their child not to give a handshake. Of these, 68 percent said it was because of germs.

Coastal Trends

-- Half of American adults living on the East Coast (50 percent) have hesitated to give a handshake due to fear of germs. However, those on the West Coast are the least concerned with passing germs -- only 35 percent have hesitated to shake hands.

-- Southerners, known for their hospitality, traditions and manners, average about eight handshakes a week. That's two more than the national average of six handshakes a week.

-- Eastern states are leading the country in fist bumps, averaging three fist bumps a week -- that's 50 percent more than the national average (2 fist bumps).

Germagraphic Data

There are more than 59 million American adults who identify themselves as a germaphobe -- that's more than a quarter (26 percent) of Americans.

-- Women are more likely than men to admit fear of germs (30 percent and 21 percent respectively).

-- Younger Americans are more likely to identify themselves as germaphobes -- 42 percent of Millennials versus 27 percent of Generation X and 21 percent of Boomers.

The handshake is perhaps the most common gesture of greeting and agreement in the modern world. It can be traced back to medieval times as a signal to rivals that they were unarmed and safe, but a handshake today is a red flag for germ transmission, and as a result it is on the decline.

"The handshake is a powerful, intensely personal gesture," says Dr. David B. Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash. "It is a virtually universal way to reach out and touch a fellow human being. In the context of business, we rely on handshakes to meet, greet, and 'seal a deal.' Our mutual, palm-to-palm grasping establishes trust, and is far more intimate, emotional, and meaningful than less personal gestures like the fist bump. The findings of Purell's recent survey are significant and alarming, but I'm encouraged that the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers could represent an antidote to the possible demise of our warm, human handshake."

For more information about where germs lurk, the importance of proper hand hygiene and how hand sanitizers work, visit