Is a kiss safer than a handshake?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional greetings like handshakes and hugs have come under scrutiny due to their potential for transmitting viruses and other germs. This has led many to wonder if alternative greetings like cheek kissing or fist bumps might be safer options. In this article, we will examine the risks associated with different types of greetings and whether a kiss really is safer than a handshake when it comes to spreading illnesses.

How are viruses and germs transmitted through greetings?

When people greet each other, there is often direct skin-to-skin contact and very close physical proximity. This creates an opportunity for viruses and bacteria to be transmitted through:

  • Respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, or breathing.
  • Direct contact with contaminated hands or surfaces.
  • Contact with saliva, mucus, or open sores.

Some pathogens can survive for hours or even days on surfaces like hands and clothes. Greeting someone with a contaminated hand can therefore directly pass those germs to another person. Respiratory droplets containing virus particles can also spread between people in very close contact.

Handshake Risks

Handshakes involve prolonged skin-to-skin contact and hand-to-hand transmission of germs. During a handshake, some common ways viruses and bacteria can spread include:

  • Contact with contaminated hands or surfaces. Hands frequently carry germs and viruses picked up from contaminated objects and surfaces. Shaking hands passes these directly from one person to another.
  • Shared contact with respiratory droplets. Standing close face-to-face during a handshake allows respiratory droplets to spread between people through coughing, sneezing or close conversation.
  • Skin abrasions and wounds. Cuts or scratches on hands can harbor bacteria and viruses. Contact during a handshake can transfer these pathogens through the damaged skin.
  • Lack of hand hygiene. Not washing hands properly after using the bathroom, blowing nose, or other activities can leave behind germs. A handshake passes these germs to the next person.

Overall, handshakes require close physical contact and direct hand-to-hand transmission of pathogens. This makes them a relatively high-risk greeting for spreading illnesses.

Kissing Risks

Cheek kissing involves very close face-to-face contact and skin-to-skin touching. Some ways viruses and germs can spread through kissing include:

  • Saliva contact. Kissing on the lips or cheeks brings mucous membranes in contact with saliva. Saliva carries many types of viruses.
  • Respiratory droplet transmission. Close face-to-face proximity makes it easy for respiratory droplets from an infected person to spread by coughing, sneezing, or close conversation.
  • Face touching. Kissing often involves touching or caressing someone’s face. This can transmit viruses and bacteria from hands to facial mucous membranes.
  • Skin abrasions. Cuts, sores, or dermatitis on lips or face can expose viruses to easy transmission through contact.

The skin-to-skin and face-to-face contact makes kissing a relatively high-risk type of greeting for transmission of illnesses. However, the risks depend on the type of kiss.

Kissing Risks by Type

  • Kiss on the lips – Highest risk. Direct mucous membrane contact spreads saliva and any viruses or bacteria present.
  • Kiss on the cheek – Moderate risk. Less direct contact with mucous membranes but very close face-to-face proximity. Customs vary on number of kisses and cheek alternating.
  • Hand-kiss – Lower risk. Removes close face contact but retains skin-to-skin touching. Reduces transmission of respiratory droplets.
  • Air-kiss – Lowest risk. Cheeks may touch but no direct skin contact. Greatly reduces transfer of pathogens.

So a kiss on the lips carries the most risk while an air-kiss is much safer. Customs determining type of kiss vary between cultures and relationships.

How do handshakes compare to kisses for illness transmission?

There are a few key factors to compare when evaluating the risks of a handshake versus a kiss for spreading germs and illnesses:

Duration of Contact

A typical handshake lasts less than 5 seconds. In contrast, a kiss on the cheek can last 5-10 seconds, while a kiss on the lips may last over 10 seconds. The longer duration increases pathogen transmission risk.

Surface Area of Contact

A handshake involves primarily hand-to-hand contact. A kiss involves facial areas like the cheeks, lips, nose, and forehead. More shared surface area creates more opportunity for pathogen transfer.

Nature of Contact Surfaces

Hands frequently touch dirty objects leading to high pathogen levels on the skin surface. The sensitive facial skin involved in kissing harbors less background bacteria and viruses. However, mucous membranes on the lips are very vulnerable to infections.

Distance Between Faces

A handshake keeps faces roughly 2-3 feet apart. A kiss brings faces inches apart. Closer proximity promotes inhalation of respiratory droplets.

Taking these factors together, while a handshake is risky, kisses often involve greater duration and closer contact with vulnerable mucous membranes. This suggests kisses, especially on the lips, may carry somewhat higher transmission risks than handshakes for many types of illnesses. However, risks vary greatly based on personal hygiene practices as well.

How hygiene impacts greeting risks

Personal hygiene practices before and after greetings greatly influence the likelihood of transmitting pathogens.

Hand Hygiene

Proper handwashing with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer can remove over 99% of germs from hands and reduce handshake transmission risks.

Respiratory Hygiene

Covering coughs and sneezes and wearing a mask reduces spreading viruses through respiratory droplets during either handshakes or kisses.

Avoiding Greetings When Ill

The highest transmission risk occurs when an infectious person greets others. Avoiding nonessential greetings reduces risk.


Vaccines that protect against contagious illnesses like influenza can help prevent transmission through any type of greeting.

So while kisses may pose intrinsically higher risks than handshakes, good personal hygiene practices minimize risks for both types of greetings.

Are fist bumps and elbow taps safer greetings?

Some people have advocated greetings like fist bumps or elbow taps as safer alternatives:

  • Fist bumps – Very low contact duration. Avoids face-to-face proximity. Much lower transmission risks.
  • Elbow taps – No hand-to-hand or skin-to-skin contact. Greatly reduces pathogen transfer risk compared to handshakes or kisses.

These types of “safe distance greetings” are likely much lower risk options. However, any greeting brings people within a few feet of each other, briefly exposing them to respiratory droplets. So risks are never completely eliminated. Using these safer greetings after proper hand hygiene and avoiding greetings while sick reduces risks further.

Key takeaways on greeting risks

In summary, key points to consider regarding handshake and kiss risks include:

  • All greetings pose some degree of risk for transmitting illnesses.
  • Handshakes and kisses involve higher risks than “safe distance greetings” like fist bumps.
  • Kisses on the lips likely pose the highest transmission risks due to saliva contact.
  • Practicing good hygiene like handwashing and covering coughs reduces risks for all greetings.
  • Avoiding nonessential greetings when sick is important to lower transmission risks.

So in most situations, fist bumps and elbow taps are safer choices. But with proper precautions, even handshakes and kisses only carry moderate risks. Common sense and good hygiene practices can go a long way towards staying healthy, regardless of how you choose to greet others.

Comparative Risks of Different Greetings

Type of Greeting Contact Duration Skin-to-Skin Contact? Face-to-Face Proximity? Overall Risk Level
Handshake Brief (less than 5 seconds) Yes (hands) Moderate (2-3 ft) Moderate Risk
Hug Intermediate (5-10 seconds) Yes (full bodies) Very close High Risk
Kiss on cheek Intermediate (5-10 seconds) Yes (lips and cheeks) Very close High Risk
Kiss on lips Prolonged (10+ seconds) Yes (lips and faces) Very close Very High Risk
Fist bump Brief (less than 5 seconds) Yes (fists) Moderate (2-3 ft) Low Risk
Elbow tap Brief (less than 5 seconds) No Moderate (2-3 ft) Very Low Risk


While no greeting is completely risk-free, this evaluation shows that the closer and longer the physical contact between people, the higher the risks. Kisses on the lips pose the most risk due to exposure to saliva and close face-to-face proximity over a prolonged period. In contrast, brief greetings like fist bumps and elbow taps that avoid direct skin contact carry much lower risks. Combined with proper handwashing, covering coughs, and staying home when ill, these safe distance greetings represent the best practices for reducing disease transmission when greeting others. But even riskier greetings like handshakes and kisses can be made relatively safe by applying basic hygiene and social distancing precautions.

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