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What is the Best Way to Wash Your Hands?

It seems so common place, and yet there are many mistakes people make when washing their hands. So what really is the best way to wash your hands?

What is the Best Way to Wash Your Hands?

"Go wash your hands!" "Don't forget to wash your hands before dinner!"  How many times have you told someone, or been told by others, to wash your hands?  It seems so common place, and yet there are many mistakes people make when washing their hands.  So what really is the best way to wash your hands?

Why is it important to have clean hands?

Everything you touch, every door you open, every button you press, everything you pick up with your hands has microbes, or tiny living organisms, on it.  Most of these are harmless, but a select few can be germs or harmful bacteria that can make us sick.   These germs can be spread to others when we touch door handles, elevator buttons, and other common items.  They can get in our own bodies and make us sick when we pick up food and eat it, or just by touching our eyes, nose, or mouth.  Properly washing your hands can effectively kill most of these microbes and help prevent the spread of disease.

Fact from Fiction

One common myth is that it is better to wash your hands with antibacterial soap.  Researchers have discovered that there is no statistically significant difference between washing with antibacterial or regular soap.  Some of the chemicals in antibacterial soap have been found to be harmful to the environment and to contribute to antibiotic resistance, so regular soap may be best.  Both the CDC and the WHO recommend washing hands with soap and water or alcohol based hand sanitizer when no soap and water are available.

Another common misconception is that washing hands with hot water is better than washing with cold water.  A recent study determined there is no difference in how well your hands are cleaned based on water temperature.  One of the study's co-authors, Dr. Donald Schaffner, recommends washing your hands with whatever water temperature is most comfortable to you.

“If you’re uncomfortable because the water is too hot or the water is too cold, then you’re not going to do a good job,” he says.

So what is the best way to wash your hands?

Though these studies showed water temperature and antibacterial soap had no impact on hand washing effectiveness, the two factors that did seem to play a significant role in how well your hands get cleaned are the amount of time spent washing hands, and the amount of soap used.  The CDC has a 5 step approach for hand washing:

  1. Wet
  2. Lather
  3. Scrub
  4. Rinse
  5. Dry

When washing hands it is important to use enough soap to cover your hands completely and to spend at least 10 seconds lathering the soap on your hands thoroughly.  After lathering your hands with soap for 10 seconds, you must scrub your hands for at least 20 more seconds before rinsing.  Wet your hands prior to soaping, and rinse them thoroughly afterwards under clean, running water.  To dry hands, use a clean towel or air dry them. 

If no soap and running water are available, the next best thing is to use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.  When it comes to using hand sanitizer, the CDC has a simple 3 step approach:

  1. Apply the sanitizer to one palm.
  2. Rub both palms together.
  3. Rub product over your hands until dry.

However, a study was done that showed the much more comprehensive 6 step approach that is recommended by the WHO was much more effective at cleaning hands.  The 6 step approach takes about 0:42 seconds to complete, as opposed to 0:35 seconds with the CDC's 3 step approach.  For the 6 step approach, the WHO recommends the following:

  1. Rub hands together palm to palm.
  2. Rub palm over the back of the opposite hand with interlaced fingers and repeat with the opposite hand.
  3. Rub hands together palm to palm with fingers interlaced.
  4. Interlock fingers and twist hands with the backs of your fingers against  the opposite palm.
  5. Clasp your thumb with the opposite hand and move in a circular motion and repeat with the opposite hand.
  6. Press Releases fingers together and rub in circular motion on opposite palm (to wash under the fingernails) and repeat with the opposite hand.

They also incorporate this 6 step scrubbing technique into their hand washing recommendations, and they have easy to follow instructions complete with diagrams that can be found on their website here. The New York Times also put together a video which breaks down the 6 step approach in an easy to follow tutorial.  That video can be found here.

So what is the best way to wash your hands?  Using regular soap and water that is at a temperature that is comfortable to you, use the CDC's 5 step approach for hand washing while incorporating the WHO's 6 step approach to scrubbing your hands.  Following these steps will ensure your hands are effectively cleaned every time, keeping yourself and others safe from infection.

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