“Wash your hands before eating dinner!” is something many of us grew up hearing from our parents. We may have grumbled, but we learned from an early age the importance of washing our hands. But what we may not have learned is exactly why hand hygiene is so important.
“Hand hygiene” is the removal and/or killing of microorganisms (germs) on the hands. When you wash your hands correctly, it is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of disease and stay healthy. You can use either soap and running water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer to effectively eliminate germs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) says of hand washing “Keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.”
Many bacteria and viruses are spread through the lack of proper hand hygiene.
In healthcare settings, hand hygiene is required for everyone working and spending time in the healthcare facilities, in order to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses in order to keep patients and providers healthy.
Why Is Hand Washing so Important?
Simply put, washing your hands thoroughly and frequently will help keep you - and your loved ones - healthier. Washing your hands with soap removes germs from hands and helps prevent infection.
People frequently touch their face — eyes, nose, mouth — without even realizing it. Germs can easily enter the body through touching your face, so having clean hands is important!
Germs living on unwashed hands can get on food and drinks while you eat or cook. According to the CDC, some of these germs may multiply in some types of food or drink and make people sick.
Germs on your unwashed hands can transfer onto surfaces, such as your children’s toys, handrails, or doorknobs.
We are living through a particularly trying time with the COVID-19 pandemic, and hand washing is more important than ever as we all strive to stay healthy.
What is the Proper Hand-washing Technique?
Washing your hands thoroughly is imperative to staying healthy. Fortunately, the proper hand hygiene technique is pretty easy to learn. Follow these five simple steps to ensure your hands stay clean:
- Remove any jewelry on your hands or arms. Wet your hands with warm running water.
- Add soap to your hands and rub them together, making a soapy lather. Do this for approximately 20 seconds (sing the “Happy Birthday” song as a good measure!), being careful to keep the lather and suds going. Be sure to get the palms and backs of your hands, and clean in between fingers.
- Rinse your hands under warm running water
- Wipe your hands dry with a paper towel. Use this same towel to turn off the tap.
What if I don’t have access to soap and water?
Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is the preferred method for cleaning hands when soap and water are not readily available. Be sure to use a sanitizer that contains more than 60% alcohol. These are widely used in healthcare settings — you’ll find them in the hallways at hospitals and other care facilities. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are available for purchase in most grocery stores, convenience stores, and department stores.
When Should I Wash My Hands?
Washing your hands should be a practice you engage in throughout each and every day. Generally speaking, you’ll want to wash your hands:
- When they are visibly dirty
- Before and after preparing and handling food
- After using the bathroom
- After coming into contact with contaminated surfaces, such as garbage bins, the subway or other high-traffic areas
- After touching animals
- After blowing your nose or wiping your mouth
- Before and after providing medical care or caregiving for a loved one
- Before inserting your contacts
- Before preparing medication (when applicable)
- When coming home from being out in public (i.e., visiting the grocery store). This particular point is most important while living through the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Should Soap and Water be Used?
The mechanical action of washing, rinsing, and drying removes transient bacteria present on the hands. Handwashing with soap and running water must be performed whenever hands are visibly soiled.
Any type of soap will do — you don’t need a special antibacterial soap (though those work too!) in order to get your hands properly washed. Liquid soap containers are preferable when sharing your home with others.
Will I Hurt My Skin if I Frequently Wash My Hands?
Your skin is your body’s first line of defense when it comes to keeping you healthy, so making sure it is intact and wound-free is important. To prevent dry, red, and cracked hands from frequent handwashing, wet your hands before applying soap. Pat your hands dry rather than rubbing them on the (paper) towel used to dry them. Apply hand lotion frequently — you can do this even after you wash every time if your hands need the extra moisture.
Many alcohol-based hand sanitizers contain emollients to reduce the incidence of skin irritation.
Common Hand Hygiene Mistakes
Handwashing is pretty simple, but there are still things you’ll want to do to ensure you are doing it properly and not leaving any room for viruses and bacteria to live on your hands.
- REMOVE all hand and wrist jewelry before washing. Jewelry may “hide” bacteria and viruses from the action of washing/scrubbing.
- DO NOT use a single damp cloth to wash and dry hands — disposable cloths or paper towels are preferred for hand drying after you’ve washed your hands.
- DO NOT use a standing body of water to rinse hands — running water is a must.
- DO NOT use sponges or non-disposable cleaning cloths on your hands and call it a “day.” Germs thrive on moist surfaces, so be sure to use running water and soap or an alcohol-based sanitizer to get the job done right.
Washing your hands is a simple, effective way of eliminating germs and reducing the risk of spreading viruses and bacteria that can cause illness. Be sure to wash your hands frequently throughout the day, particularly when you’ve left home, are handling food, or have been in contact with outside surfaces such as doorknobs, subways, and hand railings.