Summary Objective To determine the effect of handwashing on the risk of respiratory infection. Methods We searched PubMed, CAB Abstracts, Embase, Web of Science, and the Cochrane library for articles published before June 2004 in all languages. We had searched reference lists of all primary and review articles. Studies were included in the review if they reported the impact of an intervention to promote hand cleansing on respiratory infections. Studies relating to hospital‐acquired infections, long‐term care facilities, immuno‐compromised and elderly people were excluded. We independently evaluated all studies, and inclusion decisions were reached by consensus. From a primary list of 410 articles, eight interventional studies met the eligibility criteria. Results All eight eligible studies reported that handwashing lowered risks of respiratory infection, with risk reductions ranging from 6% to 44% [pooled value 24% (95% CI 6–40%)]. Pooling the results of only the seven homogenous studies gave a relative risk of 1.19 (95% CI 1.12%–1.26%), implying that hand cleansing can cut the risk of respiratory infection by 16% (95% CI 11–21%). Conclusions Handwashing is associated with lowered respiratory infection. However, studies were of poor quality, none related to developing countries, and only one to severe disease. Rigorous trials of the impact of handwashing on acute respiratory tract infection morbidity and mortality are urgently needed, especially in developing countries.