Kevin Lutz, MD, FACP
Feb 1 2020

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the single most important thing we can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness to others is to wash and dry our hands.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the single most important thing we can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness to others is to wash and dry our hands. Infectious diseases, many of which are spread by unclean hands, remain a leading cause of death and disease worldwide. Also, according to the CDC, proper handwashing reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31% and reduces respiratory illnesses by 16-21%.

When to Wash Your Hands

As you touch people, surfaces and objects throughout the day, you accumulate germs on your hands. You can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose or mouth, or spread them to others. Although it's impossible to keep your hands germ-free, washing your hands frequently can help limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other microbes.

Always wash your hands before preparing food or eating, treating wounds or caring for a sick person and inserting or removing contact lenses.

Always wash your hands after preparing food, using the bathroom, touching an animal, blowing your nose, treating wounds or caring for a sick person, handling garbage and always remember to wash your hands when they are simply visibly dirty.

How to Wash Your Hands the Right Way

Washing your hands is easy, and it’s one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. Clean hands can stop germs from spreading from one person to another and throughout an entire community, from your home and workplace to childcare facilities and hospitals.

Follow these five steps every time.

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Water Temperature and Hand Washing

Any water temperature is effective for handwashing with soap. U.S. Food & Drug Administration and CDC guidelines recommend a warm water temperature, particularly in food preparation settings, to maximize the lathering effect of soap to aid the removal of soil and grease containing harmful microbes. However, recent research indicates that water temperature does not make a significant difference in removing enteric infection-causing microbes (such as E. coli).

Use Hand Sanitizer When You Can’t Use Soap and Water

The best option for removing dirt and germs from your hands is soap and water. However, some hand sanitizers can serve as an alternative when soap and water are not available. Hand sanitizers should not be used as a replacement for soap and water because they are not as effective at removing dirt or food and oils that may get on the hands after eating. Hand sanitizers work by coming into direct contact with bacteria and other germs. The alcohol in the sanitizer breaks down the bacterial cell membrane and destroys the germs. When using a hand sanitizer, be sure that it is alcohol-based and contains at least 60% alcohol. Apply the hand sanitizer as directed on the instructions. Rub the sanitizer all over your hands and between your fingers until your hands are dry.

Quick Handwashing Facts and Stats:

  • Only about 5% of people wash their hands correctly.
  • Most people only wash their hands for 6 seconds.
  • Around 33% of people don’t use soap when washing their hands.
  • Up to 80% of communicable diseases are transferred by touch.
  • About 7% of women and 15% of men do not wash their hands at all after using the bathroom.
  • Most bacteria on our hands is on the fingertips and under the nails. The number of bacteria on our fingertips doubles after using the bathroom. Most people wash the palms of their hands and miss everything else.
  • Damp hands are 1000 times more likely to spread bacteria than dry hands. Only about 20% of people dry their hands after washing them.
  • Approximately 40% of people don’t wash their hands after sneezing, coughing or blowing their nose.

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