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How and Why to Wash Your Hands

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Updated October 05, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Sing

Sing "Happy Birthday" while you wash your hands to be sure you wash them long enough.

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We have all learned how important it is to be sure our healthcare providers wash their hands.

Beyond just our providers, there are at least two good reasons to keep our own hands clean:

1. You may have infectious bacteria or another pathogen on your hands which means that anything you touch can become infected with those germs, too.

2. You may have some sort of toxin on your hands, such as something poisonous that you can then ingest, or which can cause a burn, or in some other way hurt you.

Of course, sometimes it's easy to know when we have something potentially dangerous on our hands. Just looking at them may reveal dirt or paint or anything else that can make us sick. A toxic material may burn or sting right away.

But more often, the danger on our hands is invisible. Bacteria and viruses can't be seen with the naked eye. Most of the time we can assume we're carrying germs on our hands, like if we sneeze or cough into our hands, or if we have just used the bathroom. But other times we pick up pathogens, too, just by touching someone else, or something that might house germs (a TV remote, a telephone, a kitchen counter - anything!).

In truth, we are constantly picking up something worthy of being washed away. But there are some times when it is critical you keep your hands clean because you risk others' health and lives if you don't:

The CDC provides a good process for washing your hands:
  1. Find a source of clean running water, hot or cold. Water in a basin or another container will not be clean to begin with, so it won't be a good source of water for washing your hands.

    (An environmental note here: the water does not need to be running for the next few steps. You can turn off the water once your hands are wet, and turn it on again for step 4.)

  2. Apply soap. Any soap will do; it doesn't have to be antibacterial soap. In fact, experts agree that sometimes antibacterial soap is a waste of money and effort.
     
  3. Rub your hands together so the soap lathers well. Scrub all around, front and back, and up your arm a few inches, too. Scrub between your fingers under your nails. You can scrape your nails against the palm of your hand to get soap under them.

    Lather and scrub for at least 20 seconds. That doesn't sound like much, but is probably longer than you think. The CDC's guideline is to hum the Happy Birthday song, slowly, twice, and that should cover your 20 seconds.

  4. Now rinse all the soap off your hands with the running water, including under your nails.
     
  5. Be sure to dry with a clean towel or you'll risk getting your newly clean hands dirty again. Better yet, let them air dry.

Hand washing cannot kill all germs, but it's a good start.

What About Hand Sanitizers?

Hand sanitizers are made of mostly alcohol which will kill many, but not all germs. If you don't have soap and water available to wash your hands, then hand sanitizer comprised of at least 60% alcohol can be used. Just like hand washing, hand sanitizers cannot kill all germs. Further, if your hands are visibly dirty, or if they have some sort of toxin on them (paint, glue, others) then the hand sanitizer won't be effective enough to protect you or others.

Of course, the upside to washing your hands frequently is that you will have less of a chance of spreading those problem toxins or germs to yourself or someone else. That is particularly important during flu season, or if someone in your home, at work or school, is sick.

The downside might be that your hands will get dry, or rough, or even crack or peel. If you have dry skin, or if you use drying soaps to wash, then you might find the hand-washing cure to be more difficult than the dirty hands themselves.

So keep some lotion handy to use when you are finished washing your hands. If you use the lotion while your hands are still damp, you'll seal in some of the moisture from the water you used to wash them with. Some hand lotions are anti-bacterial which may or may not be helpful, but probably can't hurt.

Want to politely remind or suggest to someone the importance of handwashing?

The CDC offers e-cards you can send that provides a friendly reminder of how and why to wash our hands.

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