Why Are Restroom Hand-Washing Signs By the Sinks?

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All over America, restrooms for the public (for example, in restaurants or public parks) have signs warning and exhorting us that “Employees must wash hands before returning to work” or “Hand-washing stops the flu!” These are useful public-health messages. However, in almost every restroom I’ve been to, the sign stares at you from the mirror behind the sinks. What is the point of reminding the already hygiene-conscious to wash their hands?

But in the San Francisco airport a few days ago, I finally found a “Clean hands, good health!” sign at the restroom exit door. I don’t know whether it ever caused someone to U-turn and head for the sinks, but at least it isn’t carrying coals to Newcastle.


If there is a reason, I imagine it's that the signs are not for the employees, but to reassure those visitors who might be offended if they didn't see a sign, who I expect would be those washing their hands.

Greg Merideth

Also, in many jurisdictions, these sign are legally mandated reminders for the employees, especially in food service environments. The signs just so happen to serve the dual-purpose of reminding customers.

Sam Win

True and valid point. Probably most restaurants do this more as a publicity and marketing stunt to show health-conscious patrons when they are washing their hands to see a sign showing that they care about the health and cleanliness of their food.


I think there is too much emphasis put on reminding people to wash their hands after using the restroom and not enough on telling them - and this example pertains mostly to men - to wash them before.
And my reason for this is that it would seem my hands are usually, and naturally so, much dirtier or prone to have microbes than my penis.
Just saying ;-)

Eric M. Jones

Olde Joke:

Q: So how do you tell a Yale boy from a Harvard boy?
A: A Harvard boy was hes his hands AFTER peeing. A Yale boy washes his hands BEFORE peeing.

Seminymous Coward

I routinely see such signs on doors. I don't recall seeing one by a sink except in quite small restrooms.


Just because you're not hygiene conscious, doesn't mean that you aren't vain,so as you admire yourself in that mirror post toilet use at a restaurant or bar you're reassured that those handling your food and drinks are clean and may think to yourself whomever I'm with or will be with may also appreciate cleanliness and wash. At an airport where employees may have their own restrooms, the sign is intended as a PSA- ominous in tone and placement.

Greg Merideth

Instead of thinking of these signs as being near the sink, think of them as being near the mirror. How many people, hygiene-conscious or not, pass up the opportunity to check their appearance in the mirror before leaving the restroom? Also, since many restroom doors open inward, depending on the foot traffic in a particular restroom, a sign on the exit door might often be obscured by the fact that the door is open.


These are signs for washing your hands?! And here I thought they really stood for, "Clap for bubbles."


A cynic could argue that signs on the mirrors are more about signaling to the most hygiene-conscious patrons that the restaurant cares about hygiene than actually getting employees to wash their hands. It also wouldn't surprise me if some states require they be in a specific location, at least for restaurants and other establishments that get regular health inspections. For what it's worth in Alabama and Tennessee the exit door is the norm.


Oops, looks like Carl beat me to it on the signaling idea.


Just like to ads against illegal downloading that come in DVDs for rent



Always infuriates that the person who legally purchases a DVD has to sit through an unskippable advert against piracy... therefore incentivizing watching a pirated copy. Stupid place for a warning.

Ethan Blonder

The sign is a PR stunt more than anything. The customers who would care about employee hygiene the most will be the same people who wash their hands and will see the signs. Regardless of whether employees actually wash their hands, it gives customers who care about hygiene the impression that they do.

Don R

North Carolina requires that this sign be posted, verbatim:

"Each Employee's Hands Must Be Washed Thoroughly, Using Soap, Warm Water and Sanitary Towel Or Approved Hand-Drying Device, Before Beginning Work and After Each Visit to the Toilet."

This must be effective.


Maybe it's so that those that remember to wash will feel better about themselves for doing the socially responsible thing?


I guess the best places for the signs would be above the urinal and behind the WC door.

Of greater interest could be the ratio of urinals: wash hand driers: hand driers. Assuming it takes the same time to do each of these steps, then the ratio should be 1:1:1, if it takes twice as long to pee, then the ratio would be 2:1:1.

However, many toilets will have a long line of urinals and wash hand basins but only a few hand driers, or worse have just a few basins and driers.

Does any thought go into this ratio when restrooms are designed?


I don't think the reason is to reassure the customers, because if that was the case then putting the sign on the exit door would be the best place, because all your customers would see it there. Perhaps it's meant to work on a long term basis, so the location would not make too much difference. The employees would still see it on a regular basis even if it is above the sink, and it would be engraved in their minds over time.
Placing it above the sink will also force you to stare at it for at least a few seconds as opposed to a quick glance as you exit.


One of the best places that I've seen for signs (not really hand-washing, but I think it could work), at least for women's restrooms are behind the stall door. I know several establishments around town that use this technique to place health-conscious advertisements and domestic abuse hotlines. It seems like a great idea; at least I've read them since they literally have a captive audience.