Background While several studies have documented the importance of hand washing in the university setting, the added role of environmental hygiene remains poorly understood. The purpose of this study was to characterize the personal and environmental hygiene habits of college students, define the determinants of hygiene in this population, and assess the relationship between reported hygiene behaviors, environmental contamination, and health status. Methods 501 undergraduate students completed a previously validated survey assessing baseline demographics, hygiene habits, determinants of hygiene, and health status. Sixty survey respondents had microbiological samples taken from eight standardized surfaces in their dormitory environment. Bacterial contamination was assessed using standard quantitative bacterial culture techniques. Additional culturing for coagulase-positive Staphylococcus and coliforms was performed using selective agar. Results While the vast majority of study participants (n = 461, 92%) believed that hand washing was important for infection prevention, there was a large amount of variation in reported personal hygiene practices. More women than men reported consistent hand washing before preparing food (p = .002) and after using the toilet (p = .001). Environmental hygiene showed similar variability although 73.3% (n = 367) of subjects reported dormitory cleaning at least once per month. Contamination of certain surfaces was common, with at least one third of all bookshelves, desks, refrigerator handles, toilet handles, and bathroom door handles positive for >10 CFU of bacteria per 4 cm2 area. Coagulase-positive Staphylococcus was detected in three participants' rooms (5%) and coliforms were present in six students' rooms (10%). Surface contamination with any bacteria did not vary by frequency of cleaning or frequency of illness (p>.05). Conclusions Our results suggest that surface contamination, while prevalent, is unrelated to reported hygiene or health in the university setting. Further research into environmental reservoirs of infectious diseases may delineate whether surface decontamination is an effective target of hygiene interventions in this population.