Frequent handwashing is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading illness. Handwashing requires only soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer—a cleanser that doesn't require water.
Find out when and how to wash your hands properly.
When to wash your hands
As you touch people, surfaces, and objects throughout the day, you accumulate germs on your hands. In turn, you can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. 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, giving medicine, or caring for a sick or injured person
- Inserting or removing contact lenses
Always wash your hands after:
- Preparing food, especially raw meat or poultry
- Using the toilet or changing a diaper
- Touching an animal or animal toys, leashes, or waste
- Blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing into your hands
- Treating wounds or caring for a sick or injured person
- Handling garbage, household or garden chemicals, or anything that could be contaminated—such as a cleaning cloth or soiled shoes
- Shaking hands with others
In addition, wash your hands whenever they look dirty.
How to wash your hands
It's generally best to wash your hands with soap and water. Follow these simple steps:
- Wet your hands with running water—either warm or cold.
- Apply liquid, bar, or powder soap.
- Lather well.
- Rub your hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds. Remember to scrub all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers, and under your fingernails.
- Rinse well.
- Dry your hands with a clean or disposable towel or air dryer.
- If possible, use a towel or your elbow to turn off the faucet.
Antibacterial soaps, such as those containing triclosan, are no more effective at killing germs than is regular soap. Using antibacterial soap might even lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to the product's antimicrobial agents—making it harder to kill these germs in the future. In 2016 the FDA issued a rule under which over-the-counter consumer antiseptic wash products containing the majority of the antibacterial active ingredients—including triclosan and triclocarban—can no longer be marketed to consumers. These products include liquid, foam and gel hand soaps, bar soaps, and body washes.
How to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which don't require water, are an acceptable alternative when soap and water aren't available. If you use a hand sanitizer, make sure the product contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Then follow these simple steps:
- Apply enough of the product to the palm of your hand to wet your hands completely.
- Rub your hands together, covering all surfaces, until your hands are dry.
Antimicrobial wipes or towelettes are another effective option. Again, look for a product that contains a high percentage of alcohol. If your hands are visibly dirty, however, wash with soap and water.
Kids need clean hands, too.
Help children stay healthy by encouraging them to wash their hands properly and frequently. Wash your hands with your child to show him or her how it's done. To prevent rushing, suggest washing hands for as long as it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice. If your child can't reach the sink on his or her own, keep a step stool handy.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are OK for children and adolescents, especially when soap and water aren't available. However, be sure to supervise young children using alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Remind your child to make sure the sanitizer completely dries before he or she touches anything. Store the container safely away after use.
Hand hygiene is especially important for children in child care settings. Young children cared for in groups outside the home are at greater risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases, which can easily spread to family members and other contacts.
Be sure your child care provider promotes frequent handwashing or use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Ask whether the children are required to wash their hands several times a day—not just before meals. Note, too, whether diapering areas are cleaned after each use and whether eating and diapering areas are well-separated.
A simple way to stay healthy
Handwashing doesn't take much time or effort, but it offers great rewards in terms of preventing illness. Adopting this simple habit can play a major role in protecting your health.
Publication Date: 1999-01-15