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Back to Basics: Washing Your Hands

Simple action, fewer germs

Washing hands Sometimes it's the simple solution that's the best. This is true when it comes to staying clear of germs. Proper handwashing is one of the best preventive measures to keep you from getting sick. It can also help control the spread of disease to others.

"Handwashing is a great defense against common germs," says Mary K. Hayden, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Rush. "It's great for mechanically removing dirt, live bacteria, their spores and viruses, which is an effective way to avoid disease."

Hayden also recommends using alcohol gels when soap and water aren't available.

"Alcohol gels actually kill germs," says Hayden. "The gels get rid of the vast majority of pathogens quickly and have the advantage of not being drying, which can be an issue in the winter. The only disadvantage is that they don't remove all viruses, parasites or bacterial spores the way handwashing with soap and water can.

The proper technique

Most people don't think there's a difference between washing your hands thoroughly and just giving them a hurried lather and rinse. In fact, to wash your hands properly, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends:

  • Wet your hands first and then apply soap.
  • Rub hands together vigorously to make lather and scrub all surfaces.
  • Continue rubbing and scrubbing for 20 seconds.
    • It takes at least 20 seconds for the soap and scrubbing action to dislodge and remove stubborn germs.
    • To keep time, imagine singing "Happy Birthday" twice
  • Rinse hands well under running water.
  • Dry your hands using a paper towel or air dryer.
  • If possible, use your paper towel to turn off the faucet.
  • You may also want to use a paper towel to open the door after you’ve washed your hands.

If you don’t have access to soap and running water, you can use an alcohol-based hand gel or wipe. 

You should wash your hands at the following times:

  • Before you eat
  • Before, during and after handling or preparing food
    • Always wash your hands properly between preparing raw meat and other foods
  • After sneezing
  • After blowing your nose
  • After you use the toilet
  • After touching something that could be contaminated (such as a trash can, cleaning cloth, drain or soil)
  • After handling animals, their toys, leashes or waste
  • Before inserting contact lenses
  • After changing a diaper
  • Before dressing a wound or giving medicine
  • After contact with blood or body fluids (like vomit, nasal secretions or saliva)
  • More often when someone in your home is sick
  • Whenever they look dirty

It seems simple, but handwashing is a great way to stem the spread of germs and disease.