By Barry Waldman
December hosts National Handwashing Week, which is a great reminder of how much of the world’s ills could be eliminated with this simple act, which most people fail to incorporate into their daily activities.
Handwashing, like getting vaccinated, protects us from getting sick while protecting everyone we come in contact with as well. Germs tend to be spread one of two ways: via exhalation (including coughs and sneezes) and through touch. Handwashing addresses the transmission of germs through touch.
When to Wash Hands
Based on data from multiple studies, the Centers for Disease Control recommends handwashing at these critical times:
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before and after eating food
- Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
- After handling pet food or pet treats
- After touching garbage
While the Covid crisis persists, the CDC further recommends handwashing after these activities:
- Touching your mask
- Leaving a public place
- Touching an item or surface that may be frequently touched by other people, such as door handles, tables, gas pumps, shopping carts, or electronic cashier registers/screens
You’re Probably Washing Your Hands Incorrectly
How we wash our hands plays a role in whether we have truly eliminated the malign germs that can cause infection. The CDC recommends wetting hands with running water, lathering hands with soap and rubbing them together vigorously, including the backs of hands, between fingers and under nails. Hands should be rinsed under running water, the temperature of which is immaterial. They should be dried with a clean towel or air-dried.
The importance of lathering and scrubbing cannot be overstated. The hands create friction to lift dirt, grease, and microbes from skin. Microbes can be found in particularly high concentration under the nails.
Facts and Myths About Soap
Soap is critical to the process. The surfactants in soap attract soil and microbes, facilitating their removal from skin. Additionally, we tend to scrub our hands more thoroughly when using soap.
While the rule of thumb says we should scrub our hands for 20 seconds – about the time it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song (including the “look like a monkey” version!) – there is little science to support this number. Some activities require less scrubbing, and others, like doing surgery, more. Twenty seconds is merely a guide. (Happy birthday anyway.)
Studies show that most “antibacterial” soaps are no better at killing harmful germs than regular soaps. Indeed, some studies suggest that certain antibacterial ingredients, like triclosan, may make bacteria more resistant and thus should be avoided.
“Almost any soap will remove bacteria from skin simply by cleansing,” said dermatologist Dr. Todd Schlesinger in the Roper St. Francis Healthcare magazine House Calls. “Unless there is a specific reason to decontaminate—for example, before a surgical procedure—antibacterial agents are generally not needed for soap to be effective.”
Hand Sanitizer is Not Soap
When soap isn’t available, hand sanitizer is a useful substitute, but it is important to understand that it is not a replacement for soap. Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol removes some, but not all, harmful germs.
So what is the best advice for washing hands? “Any soap will do—just wash your hands!” says Dr. Schlesinger.