We’re taught from a young age that it’s important to wash our hands. But some may wonder how much of that advice is for health reasons, and how much stems from the fact that kids’ hands always seem to be inexplicably sticky?

While the latter part is often true, all playing aside – scientific research has consistently proven that handwashing is a key preventive measure for stopping the spread of disease. The COVID-19 pandemic further emphasized the importance of hand hygiene across the globe and led many to question whether they’ve been doing it right.

We’ll cover facts about handwashing, how to do it effectively, and answers to frequently asked questions about hand hygiene.

Why is washing your hands important?

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 when you touch germy surfaces 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 practice good hand hygiene when preparing food. And the list goes on.

To understand how easily germs can be spread, imagine if you had germy green goo on your hands. Then picture going about your day and see how that goo spreads to your clothes, your phone, door handles, shopping carts and more. Would you change any of your handwashing habits? Would you work harder to de-germ your home?

Proper handwashing is proven to reduce absences, sick days and lost productivity for schools and workplaces. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shared some statistics about handwashing that speak for themselves:

  • 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 absenteeism due to gastrointestinal illnesses by up to 57%
  • It 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
  • After handling a face mask
  • After touching an animal, animal food or animal waste
  • Before and after treating a cut or injury
  • Before and after taking care of someone who’s sick

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

The CDC’s guidance for how and when to wash your hands was developed 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. 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.

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

Be sure to clean your wrists, the backs of your hands, between 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 the happy birthday song 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 around 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, 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.

Building good hygiene habits for a lifetime

You can use these steps 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.

What about our nails? How to keep them clean

Most bacteria on our hands is 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 is removed. So 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.

Is hand sanitizer a good alternative when you can’t wash your hands?

Yes. If you’re not able to wash your hands with soap and water, the next best thing is to reach for a 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.

Keeping it clean

Keeping our hands clean at work and at home is one of the best steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. But if you or your family do end up with a nasty bug, we’re here to help.