Are you taking your life into your hands when you shake hands?

If not your life, then at least your health, according to the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA), which issued its second Clean Hands Report Card, giving America a "C-minus" — a downgrade from 2004, when the country received a "C."

"It's more important than ever that people understand that clean hands save lives," said Nancy Bock, SDA Vice President of Education. "It's the places we're at everyday where we need to protect ourselves the most — at home, at work and at school — anywhere we come in contact with other people's germs."

Among the findings of SDA's 2006 National Cleaning Survey:
  • 68% of respondents don't wash their hands long enough to effectively remove germs and dislodge dirt (down from 54% in 2004). The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing with soap for at least 20 seconds.
  • 36% surveyed seldom or never wash their hands after coughing or sneezing. One of the most common ways people catch colds is by rubbing their nose or eyes after touching someone or something contaminated with the cold virus.
  • 31% don't always wash before eating lunch. That means germs on money, door handles and lunch counters.
The Report Card surveyed Americans on basic hand hygiene practices, such as washing before a meal, after using the bathroom, and after coughing or sneezing. The Report Card not only measured how often Americans wash daily, but for how long, and revealed a number of common misconceptions about hand hygiene. According to the CDC, cleaning our hands is the single most important thing we can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness to others. Of those surveyed by SDA, only 50% believe that hand washing is the best way to prevent colds and flu. And, 31% of respondents wash their hands fewer than seven times on an average day.

Ninety-seven percent of Americans surveyed said they always or almost always washed their hands after using the bathroom. Of course, there may be a bit of a gap between what people say and what they do. A 2005 observational study found that only 83% of people washed their hands after using a public restroom.