How to wash your hands the right way

Washing your hands is one of the best ways to keep yourself and the people around you from getting sick. It’s cleaner and it’s healthier to regularly wash your hands. You might remember the songs your teachers sang at preschool to remind you to wash up. Maybe it’s an automatic habit for you because your parents always encouraged it. Or maybe you didn’t appreciate the need until you had kids of your own and found out their little hands are always covered in popsicle or glue or … whatever that is.

In the same way that small hands can spread dirt to couches and walls, hands of all sizes spread germs that can make you sick. Fortunately, if you follow some basic hand-washing tips, you’ll be able to make a big difference when it comes to disease prevention.

Why it’s important to wash your hands

Our hands are the most common way germs are spread. Germs get into our bodies when we touch our faces – especially our eyes, nose and mouth. If you don’t wash your hands frequently, you might be exposed to someone else’s germs after you touch surfaces like your phone and then touch your face or eat food.

And you can spread your germs to others if you cough or sneeze then touch something, if you don’t wash your hands after going to the bathroom, or if you don’t clean your hands before preparing food. During cold and flu season, handwashing is especially critical to good health since more people are blowing their noses and sneezing, spreading germs each time they do so.

The benefits of washing your hands properly

Proper handwashing can prevent food poisoning and is also proven to reduce absences, sick days and lost productivity for schools and workplaces. It’s also a good way to help your immune system in the everyday fight against sickness. And it’s extra important for pregnant women who handle food to make sure their hands are washed because they are at risk for listeria.

Scientific research has consistently proven that handwashing is key for stopping the spread of disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shared some statistics that support this:

  • Proper handwashing can reduce the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by up to 40%
  • For school kids, frequent handwashing can take down missed school days due to gastrointestinal illnesses by up to 57%
  • Handwashing can reduce the number of people in the general population who come down with respiratory illnesses (like colds) by up to 21%

When to wash your hands

The most important times for handwashing are before preparing food and after going to the bathroom. Astonishingly, only 20% of people wash their hands before preparing food. And fewer than 75% of women and 50% of men wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Yuck!

Here are some key times to wash your hands:

  • After leaving a public place
  • Before, during and after handling or preparing food
  • Before and after eating food
  • After going to the restroom
  • After changing a diaper or helping a child use the bathroom
  • After handling garbage
  • After coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
  • Before and after treating a cut or injury
  • Before and after taking care of someone who’s sick
  • After handling a face mask
  • After touching an animal, animal food or animal waste

How to wash your hands effectively to stop the spread of germs

The CDC’s guidance for how and when to wash your hands is based on several research studies. Its proven efficacy for preventing the spread of germs makes it the most reliable source on how to wash your hands. At work or school, someone washing their hands can be the difference between a few sick days and an office or classroom outbreak. Here are the basic steps to follow.

1. Use running water to get your hands wet, then apply soap

Using both soap and water is the most effective way to clean your hands. The temperature of the water doesn’t matter, as warm and cold water remove the same number of germs. And what does the soap do? Soap contains surfactants, substances that lift dirt and microbes from the skin, allowing the water to wash them away. Plus, people typically scrub their hands more thoroughly when they use soap, which helps remove even more germs. Washing your hands with water is okay, but washing your hands with soap is far preferable.

2. Lather your hands with the soap by rubbing them together

Be sure to clean your wrists, the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails. Fun fact: The bacteria count is highest on our dominant hand, yet right-handed people wash their left hand more thoroughly than their right hand, and vice versa. Keep this in mind next time you’re sudsing up and try to wash both hands evenly.

3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds

The friction of scrubbing with soap helps dislodge dirt and germs to remove them from your skin. If you want help timing out 20 seconds, you can sing “Happy Birthday to You” from beginning to end twice. This is a great way to help kids learn good handwashing habits, too. Research shows that washing your hands for 15-30 seconds removes more germs than washing for a shorter time.

4. Rinse your hands well under running water

When you rinse your hands, the water carries all the soap, dirt and germs away, leaving your hands much cleaner. Rinsing also helps remove possible irritants from your skin. Experts emphasize using clean running water rather than a basin filled with water, because the standing water (as well as the basin) may be contaminated with germs.

5. Dry your hands with a clean towel or air-dry them

Turn off the water and dry your hands with a clean towel or paper towel, or just let them air dry. When you turn off the water, you can choose to turn the faucet with a clean paper towel to provide a barrier between your clean hands and the faucet, but this is not strictly necessary, especially if you’re at home or at a well-cared for and recently cleaned location.

Don’t forget your fingernails

Most bacteria on our hands are on our fingertips and under our nails. The average person spends less than 10 seconds washing their hands, and they often clean their palms and miss everything else. But for every 15 seconds we spend washing our hands, 10 times more bacteria are removed. That extra time makes a big difference, which is why experts recommend washing for at least 20 seconds.

To clean under your nails, get your hands soapy and rub the nails of one hand inside the opposite palm. If you’re at home and have access to a brush or washcloth, cleaning under your nails thoroughly with one of those is an even more effective way to keep that hard-to-reach area as clean as possible.

The truth about hand sanitizer

You might be on the fence about hand sanitizer. Does it really work? Is it a good alternative for washing your hands?

Yes, it is. If you’re not able to wash your hands with soap and water, the next best thing is to reach for hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. There’s a myth that using alcohol-based hand sanitizer could cause antibiotic resistance, but that’s not true. Hand sanitizers kill germs in a different way than antibiotics, so there’s no chance for germs to adapt or develop resistance.

Handwashing in winter

When the weather is freezing and your skin is already sensitive, it can be tempting to slack on handwashing. Frequent exposure to soap and water can make your hands dry and cracked, but that’s no excuse to skip washing them, especially since winter is peak time for cold and flu germs to flourish. Prevent the spread of germs by staying on top of your handwashing game. When you wash your hands in the winter, be sure to dry them thoroughly. This will prevent further damage to your skin. Also consider using hand lotion – fragrance free will be the most soothing for sore winter hands.

Building good hygiene habits for a lifetime

You can use these tips to teach kids the right way to wash their hands from a young age, which will help them develop good habits, stay healthier and prevent spreading germs to others. Learning a fun song to sing together while you wash for 20 seconds is one way to make it fun and model the length of time needed to wash.

When handwashing is not enough

Keeping your hands clean at work and at home is one of the best steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. But illness happens even to the most vigilant of handwashers because we can’t always control our environments. If you or your family do end up with a nasty bug, we’re here to help.