When & How to Wash Your Hands

Mom helping daughter wash handsKeeping hands clean is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Many diseases and conditions are spread by not washing hands with soap and clean, running water.

When should you wash your hands?

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning 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
  • After handling used tissues or removing a face mask
  • Before entering and after exiting the room of a hospitalized friend or family member
  • After hand contact with objects and surfaces in the community (such as door handles/knobs, light switches, buttons on time clocks, menus)

How should you wash your hands?

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

What should you do if you don’t have soap and clean, running water?

If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can
quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs and might not remove harmful chemicals. Hand sanitizers are not as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

How do you use hand sanitizers?

  • Apply the product to the palm of one hand. (Read the label to learn the correct amount.)
  • Rub your hands together.
  • Rub the product over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry.
Head shot of Whitney watson in blue sweater
Whitney Watson, BSN, RN, CIC, Infection Preventionist

“Keeping your hands clean is still a very important strategy for you and your family members to avoid infections, both in the community and when in the hospital,” explains
Whitney Watson, BSN, RN, CIC, infection preventionist at Parkwest Medical Center. “When receiving healthcare services, expect your providers to perform hand hygiene before
providing care and don’t be afraid to ask them to clean their hands before providing care or starting treatments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminds us, ‘It’s OK
to ask for protection from infection.’”

Hand Washing by the Numbers

According to the CDC, proper hand washing:

  • Reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31%
  • Reduces diarrheal illness in people with weakened immune systems by 58%
  • Reduces respiratory illnesses like colds in the general population by 21%
  • Reducing illness can increase productivity by allowing more time to be spent at work or school

Hand Sanitizer: Did You Know?

hands using pumping hand sanitizerWhen soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

Why? Many studies have found that sanitizers with an alcohol concentration between 60-95 percent are more effective at killing germs than those with a lower alcohol
concentration or non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers. While non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers are better than not washing hands at all, keep in mind that they may:
• not work equally well for all classes of germs;
• cause germs to develop resistance to the sanitizing;
• merely reduce the growth of germs rather than kill them outright, or
• may be more likely to irritate skin than alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

To use, apply hand sanitizer to the palm of one hand and rub the product all over the surfaces of  your hands until your hands are dry.

Why? The steps for hand sanitizer use are based on a simplified procedure recommended by CDC. Instructing people to cover all surfaces of both hands with hand sanitizer has been found to provide similar disinfection effectiveness as providing detailed steps for rubbing-in hand sanitizer.

Wait! Some hand sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs.

Why? Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers can inactivate many types of microbes very effectively when used correctly, people may not use a large enough volume of the sanitizer or may wipe it off before it has dried. Furthermore, soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers at removing or inactivating certain kinds of germs, like Cryptosporidium, norovirus, and Clostridium difficile.

Hand sanitizers may not be as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

Why? Many studies show that hand sanitizers work well in clinical settings like hospitals, where hands come into contact with germs but generally are not heavily soiled or greasy. Some data also show that hand sanitizers may work well against certain types of germs on slightly soiled hands. However, hands may become very greasy or soiled in  community settings, such as after people handle food, play sports, work in the garden, or go camping or fishing. When hands are heavily soiled or greasy, hand sanitizers may not work well. Handwashing
with soap and water is recommended in such circumstances.

Hand sanitizers might not remove harmful chemicals, like pesticides and heavy metals, from hands.

Why? Although few studies have been conducted, hand sanitizers probably cannot remove or inactivate many types of harmful chemicals. In one study, people who
reported using hand sanitizer to clean hands had increased levels of pesticides in their bodies. If hands have touched harmful chemicals, wash carefully with soap and water (or as
directed by a poison control center).