Handwashing has become an ingrained habit – and that’s a good thing

Our experience of the coronavirus pandemic has changed our views on hygiene, says Piia Jallinoja, a health sociologist.
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  • Sustainable tissue paper, Hygiene

What should we eat today? Do I get enough exercise? Did I remember to wash my hands when I got home?

These are questions that we all ask ourselves in our daily lives. The same questions – as well as our answers – are of special interest to researcher Piia Jallinoja.

Professor of Health Sociology at Tampere University, Jallinoja studies phenomena related to health, food and nutrition from a social and cultural perspective. As a sociologist, she explores the emergence of various health-related phenomena, the types of people drawn to them, how health-related phenomena affect our attitudes and behaviour, and the role played by the authorities, the mass media and social media in the emergence of the phenomena.

Piia Jallinoja’s work is based on a major change concerning our standard of living, which has seen a sharp rise in the past century. After the mid-1900s, we successfully brought down the infant mortality rate and rid ourselves of major epidemics and famine, which had until then been the focus of Finnish public health work. We have now entered the era of lifestyle diseases and a diversity of lifestyles.

“Nowadays we have enough energy, time and assets to focus on questions other than survival. Food, exercise and health have become integral parts of our lifestyle and identity: they signal who we are, and who we want to become.

The consumption of tissue paper serves as an indicator of living standards: when the standard of living rises, so does the consumption of tissue paper. Each Finn consumes around 17.3 kilograms of tissue paper annually. The rise in consumers’ living standards, as well as our lifestyles and quality of life, influence our daily choices. To secure their quality of life, more and more consumers want to buy products made of raw materials that are more durable, of higher quality and sustainably produced.

Health-related phenomena reflect our attitudes

The hygiene revolution is also linked to the rise in living standards. Researchers learned decades ago how bacteria and viruses spread, and how their spread could be contained. This knowledge has become part of our daily routines and understanding: we wipe the surfaces in our homes and wash our hands and dishes. Consumers are also more inclined to invest in the quality of hygiene products.

Health is one of the underlying motives behind diets and hygiene habits that always comes up in studies. Of course, it would all be very simple if health were the only thing we valued. But as Jallinoja points out, people are rarely that straightforward.

“In addition to emphasising health, we seek pampering and a feeling of safety. We also want to save the environment, and show others how exciting and modern we are. This is what makes health-related phenomena so complex. We want our lives to be diverse and not only focus on health.”
Consumer products are also expected to offer various properties to respond to different needs. In addition to hygiene considerations, the choice of tissue paper is determined by aspects related to reliable functionality, including durability and absorbency, sustainable raw materials, local production, price, and the softness and quality of paper.

Our behaviour is moulded by the flow of information and social pressure

According to Jallinoja, many things control our behaviour in health-related questions. We absorb information from many different sources such as the authorities, experts, our family and friends, the media, social media influencers and company communications, and then use this information to form opinions and adapt our behaviour.

We are also influenced by social pressure.

“We seek the acceptance of others and want to portray ourselves as being ‘decent’ – in both our own and others’ eyes,” Jallinoja explains.

For a health sociologist, the coronavirus pandemic has been very interesting, because it has affected every Finn. In the early spring of 2020, when the pandemic really hit Finland, we saw a strong campaign to boost hygiene. We were urged to wash our hands frequently and carefully, and to avoid coughing and shaking hands.

Jallinoja soon noticed that hand air dryers disappeared from toilets in cafés and shopping malls, and were replaced by paper hand towels, which have been found to be a hygienic alternative for hand drying.

“The spread of the coronavirus and the guidelines for combatting it had an immediate impact on our behaviour. People were motivated by their own health and the health of others, because we knew that the disease was serious.”

However, Jallinoja does not believe in prioritising our motives, because they all influence us in one way or another. Each culture and era prioritises different health norms. Jallinoja takes her own school years as an example: back then, the focus was on dental care, while today, handwashing has taken on a special role in hygiene. The coronavirus pandemic especially has placed continued emphasis on hand hygiene and the use of paper hand towels for hand drying.

Safe and familiar routines guide our activities

Jallinoja points out that familiar routines are important to people. They offer a feeling of safety. This is also true of hygiene products such as tissue papers.

“When we get used to a specific type or brand of toilet paper or paper hand towel in a specific situation, it feels easy and natural. If we have to make changes to our habits, what used to be familiar suddenly feels difficult.”

How we separate things into clean or dirty differs from culture to culture. We maintain this separation in our daily lives, and it becomes ingrained in our minds, Jallinoja explains. If we usually use a paper hand towel to wipe the table, it distresses us if we can no longer do so.

It takes a long time for changes in hygiene behaviour to take root, because the formation of routines requires numerous repetitions. Nevertheless, Jallinoja believes that the enhanced hygiene practices introduced during the coronavirus pandemic will continue to influence our behaviour after the pandemic.

“The importance of handwashing has become ingrained in our minds, and we’ll probably wash our hands more frequently than before, and prefer to user paper or cloth hand towels rather than air hand dryers.”