Don't Eat Bar Pretzels Either

Erik is out of the office this week, so we're reprinting a column from 2004.

There's a scene in the movie, "Along Came Polly," where Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) warns Polly (Jennifer Aniston) not to eat bar nuts, because "only one out of six people wash their hands after using the bathroom."

This is a little distressing, when you realize that during your normal workday, you may shake hands with at least five other people. If you're a conscientious hand washer, then statistically speaking, you're the only one who washed their hands after their last pit stop. Which means you're now carrying five different sets of Potty Hand Germs.

Unfortunately, I think "one in six" statistic is a little understated. Having been a conscientious hand washer for many years, the more accurate statistic is "no one but me."

(Update: In 2013, a Michigan State University study found that 1 in 10 people don't wash their hands, 1 in 3 don't use soap, and only 5 percent of all people wash their hands long enough to kill bacteria — 20 seconds, or long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice.)

To make matters worse, the non-washers leave the bathroom by grabbing the door handle. They clutch it in their sweaty hands, rubbing their Potty Hand Germs all over it. And now I have to use my pristine hands to open it, so I need a plan to leave without actually touching the handle.

The easiest trick is to use a paper towel to open the door and then toss it into the trash can as I walk out. This is getting harder as more bathrooms install those stupid electric hand driers, and restaurant managers get upset when you try to open a door with one of those. (I won't make that mistake again!)

I sometimes pull my sleeve over my hand, but then I have Potty Hand Germs on my sleeve, so I usually only do it with my left one.

My wife and I have even talked about whether I should grab the top or the bottom of the door handle with my pinky, because that's the least germ-infested. She says bottom, because fewer people grab it there.

I say the top, because the germs have farther to travel, and they're fighting gravity.

If the bathroom door pushes out, then I'm golden. I walk out like a freshly-scrubbed surgeon, and I don't have to touch anything.

There's another trick that works, especially in a busy restaurant. I'm sure you've opened the bathroom door and narrowly avoided smacking someone who was leaving. Try it from the other side: stand in the bathroom and wait for the door to open. Then act surprised and leave through the now-open door without ever touching anything.

But Potty Hand Germs aren't only limited to restaurant patrons. I've actually seen restaurant workers use the facilities and then walk out the door.

"Aren't you going to wash your hands?" I asked one guy who looked like a cook.

"They have antibacterial soap in the kitchen," he said.

I wasn't about to argue since I didn't want to look like a bigger clean freak than I already did, but we didn't stick around for dessert.

My obsession with hand cleanliness started when I was ten. My grandmother told me I could get hepatitis from not washing my hands.

I didn't know what hepatitis was, but I knew I didn't want it. At that age, I assumed anything with "itis" in it was probably deadly, transmitted by rabid animals or girls. Thus began my lifelong hand washing odyssey, ensuring I would stay hepatitis-free forever.

But as much as I worry about cleanliness at home, all bets are off when I'm working outside or on a fishing trip. There's something about physical labor or being outdoors that makes me germ free.

I have no problem with grabbing a sandwich while I'm working out in the garage for a few hours. And I have eaten pizza more than once while I'm covered in sawdust or drywall dust.

It's because the sheer act of wiping one's hands on an already dirty shirt has a magical cleansing effect. Of course, if you've been gutting fish, you should rinse your hands off in the lake before wiping them on your shirt.

One does have one's standards, after all.

After the wiping process — up and down three times, front and back — your hands are now clean. You're ready to perform surgery, pass food to a friend, or even eat a sandwich.

Just wash your hands when you're done. You don't know where that sandwich has been.

Photo credit: Burst (, Creative Commons 0)

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