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Hand Washing: Why, When, and How to Do It
Learn more about when and how to wash your hands, the importance of using soap and water, and what you can do if soap and clean, running water are not available. Whether you are at home, at work, traveling, or already sick, find out how good hand hygiene can protect you, your family, and others. In this article, we guide you through the hows and whys of hand washing, using official information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What are germs?
Whether we like it or not, we live in a germ-filled world. Germs are the tiny bacteria, viruses, fungi, or protozoa that can sometimes make us sick. They do this when they find an entry point into our bodies, such as the eyes, ears, nose, or mouth. Germs can be spread by air but are also found on surfaces we often touch like doorknobs, keyboards, and handrails. One of the easiest ways germs get into your system is when you touch something with germs on it and then touch your face.
Why wash your hands?
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of hand washing. When you wash your hands, you dramatically reduce the amount of germs on your hands, and, therefore, your risk of getting sick. Communities that practice regular hand washing see the rate of people that get sick with diarrhea fall by 23-40% , and with colds and other respiratory illnesses by 16-21% .
The benefits of hand washing go beyond just protecting yourself from sicknesses. When you wash your hands regularly, you’ll also reduce the chance that you’ll infect someone else. This is especially important when you’re sick yourself, or around people with weakened immune systems like infants or the elderly.
When to wash your hands
Wash your hands regularly to prevent the flu and other illnesses. This means doing so:
- After using the bathroom
- After blowing your nose, sneezing, or coughing
- After touching garbage or taking out the trash
- After petting or playing with animals, or touching pet food
- Before eating
- Before, during, and after preparing a meal
- Before and after you take care of someone who is sick
- After you’ve changed a diaper or cleaned someone up
How to wash your hands
Let’s go over the five hand washing steps: Wet, lather, scrub, rinse, and dry. Follow these easy steps and make sure to teach children and family members this effective hand washing technique too.
- WET your hands using clean, running water. Warm or cold water will do. Make sure to turn off the faucet afterwards so you don’t waste water.
- Apply soap to your hands and LATHER them up! Make sure you don’t forget to lather the backs of your hands, under your fingernails, and between your fingers.
- SCRUB your hands for about 20 seconds. Sing the song “Happy Birthday” twice from start to finish and you’re sure to get your hand washing time right!
- Thoroughly RINSE your hands under clean, running water. Shut off the faucet when you’re done.
- Shake off the excess water and then DRY your hands using a clean, dry towel or by letting them air dry.
What to do when you can’t wash your hands
Washing your hands with soap and running water is the most effective way of reducing the amount of germs on your hands and is an important flu prevention tactic1 (in addition to getting a flu shot).
Sometimes, however, we don’t have soap or running water nearby, like when we’re on the bus or playing in the park, for example. In these situations, it’s still important to practice good hygiene. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol instead.
Here’s how to use hand sanitizer correctly:
- Make sure your hands are free of as much dirt or grease as possible.
- Apply some hand sanitizer gel to the palm of your hand. Usually a dime-sized amount will do, but read the label first to be sure.
- Rub your hands together, distributing the gel on the palms and backs of your hands, in between your fingers, and under your fingernails.
- Rub your hands together for about 30 seconds.
- Allow your hands to dry completely. Make sure you don’t touch any food or your face until they are completely dry.