Abstract The efficacy of 14 hand washing or disinfectant preparations was compared in laboratory tests on staff volunteers. The test organism, Escherichia coli, was applied to the fingertips and log reductions (LR) were measured following treatment with the test agent and control preparations (70% isopropanol and non-medicated bar soap). Alcoholic preparations, particularly n-propanol and isopropanol were the most effective showing LRs of 3·1–3·8. Chlorhexidine (LR 2·9) and povidone-iodine detergent preparations were significantly more effective than non-medicated soap (LR 2·1), but triclosan products were not. In addition the residual effect of several of these formulations was assessed after 10 applications by comparing the survival of E. coli on the fingertips over a 32-min period. This number of handwashes compares favourably with those recorded during an 8 h nursing shift. Chlorhexidine-detergent consistently showed the best residual activity. Alcoholic formulations showed little or no residual effect. The survival studies show that on the whole gram-positive organisms ( Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans) survive better on the skin than Gram-negative bacilli (GNB). However, it would seem that GNB which are considered to be residents ( Acinetobacter calcoaceticus and Enterobacter spp.) survive much better than many other GNB ( Pseudomonas aeruginosa, E. coli and Proteus vulgaris). The Klebsiella species varied in survival times. Random sampling of ward staff hands showed that contamination with S. aureus and GNB was greater in dermatological and general wards than in an isolation unit, where handwashing or disinfection was carried out after every patient contact. No cross-infection occurred in the isolation ward during periods of study in which 70% alcohol, chlorhexidine-detergent and non-medicated soap were used.