The human hand harbours more harmful bacteria than public surfaces, a new study has found.
Researchers found the average pair of human hands is more unhygienic than escalators and benches in busy shopping centres and parks.
Yet only one in eight people always wash their hands before eating, the study shows.
Swabs taken from dirty looking surfaces in St Albans city centre and Luton Town Mall revealed a surprising lack of harmful bugs.
From escalator handrails to park benches, the most bacteria ridden swabs were still hundreds of times cleaner than the average pair of hands.
It means hands are far more likely to make us unwell than the apparently filthy surfaces in and around cafes and fast food restaurants we try to avoid.
Laboratory tests on 25 samples from tables, benches, escalator handrails, high chairs and children’s ride-on toys which looked stained, dirty and worn found hardly any harmful bacteria including staphylococcus, E.coli and enterobacteriaceae, which has been linked to deaths.
The reading was so low that the bacteria were either not present or were but only in tiny quantities, in most cases fewer than 10 per square cm.
The overall quantity was relatively low with 33,000 the worst example, a wooden public bench.
Meanwhile, the average person carries more than 10 million bacteria on the hands alone and a University of Arizona study found a typical kitchen sponge will contain several million.
Meanwhile, a parallel survey found 92 per cent would avoid dirty looking tables and seats, citing health as the primary concern.
By contrast, just 13 per cent would avoid eating unless they had washed or cleansed their hands.
Two years ago a UK study found faecal germs are present on 26 per cent of hands.
The UN estimates hand washing alone could save more than a million lives a year from diarrhoeal diseases and prevent respiratory infections.
Bola Lafe, founder of water sanitisers Aquaint, which commissioned the research, said: 'This study highlights the fact people avoid what they believe will make them unwell.
'In fact, we need to narrow the lens when it comes to spotting potential risks to health.
'Our hands operate a highly effective public transport network for bacteria and viruses. During the course of a day, we all touch hundreds of surfaces and have varying attitudes to hand washing.
'This is totally out of our control so rather than just avoiding certain areas, good hand hygiene should be the top priority.
'Our hands are in frequent contact with our mouths or with items that we put in our mouths, making them the fastest route to illness.'
He added: 'A dirty table is not pleasant but neither is it dangerous by default.
'By contrast, a gleaming shiny table could well be harbouring high levels of potentially dangerous bacteria. The lesson is unless you have cleaned your hands as well as the surface, it is a lottery.'
A second study, conducted by Initial Washroom Hygiene, found almost a quarter of people out on their lunch break were carrying potentially elevated levels of bacteria on their hands.
Around 300 people's hands, handbags, mobile phones and other personal items were swabbed at an event in central London.
Researchers found 56 of the 234 people who offered their hands for testing were carrying potentially high levels of bacteria, which could indicate a high risk of cross-contamination.
The 'dirtiest' pair of hands swabbed recorded almost four times the number of bacteria, with bacteria-related contamination considered 'high'.
One watch tested was found to house close to six times the acceptable level of germs you might expect to find on a personal item, which may come into contact with your hands.
Experts said simply washing your hands well with soap and clean water can reduce bacteria levels 10-fold.
They recommend washing hands for around 30 seconds, despite most people surveyed thinking 15 seconds was long enough.
Around a quarter of people surveyed admitted they never, or rarely wash their hands after blowing their nose, and 27 per cent don't after travelling on public transport.
It is estimated drug-resistant strains of bacteria, such as MRSA are responsible for 5,000 deaths a year in the UK, and 25,000 deaths a year in Europe.
The main weapon in the fight against MRSA is improved hygiene, slashing the bug's ability to spread.
More common illnesses such as the Norovirus and Campylobacter, can be reduced through frequent and proper hand washing with soap and water.
Microbiologist Dr Peter Barratt, said: 'People’s hands touch a lot of different surfaces and objects during the course of a day, bringing them into contact with a variety of different bacteria and viruses.
'Bacteria can live on a person’s hands for several hours unless they use a protective hand sanitiser, and the conditions for bacteria to exist are increased in hot weather.
'Estimates suggest that an office worker’s hands come into contact with an average 10 million bacteria a day via contaminated surfaces.
'Common germs include Escherichia coli (E.coli) which can cause stomach aches and vomiting, and Campylobacter which can also be picked up and spread from surfaces in kitchens and washrooms that contain large amounts of bacteria.
'The common cold viruses, and winter vomiting virus (Norovirus) can all be caught via contact with other people’s hands, or surfaces that have been touched by those carrying the virus.
'Good practice advises that members of the public should wash their hands approximately every four hours.'
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