American author John Steinbeck once wrote, “A sad soul can kill you quicker than a germ.” While certainly a poetic statement, and even somewhat true, those pesky germs—found everywhere and on everything—can still make you sick. Fortunately, washing your hands is one of the best defenses against the infections and illnesses they induce. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), handwashing can reduce respiratory illnesses—such as the common cold—in the general population by 21 percent. Other U.S. public health authorities have stated that bad hand hygiene cause nearly 50 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks.
When to Wash Your Hands
While it may seem like common sense to wash your hands whenever you do something that might cause you to come into contact with—or spread—germs, many people don’t do it. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health by researchers from Michigan State University revealed that only 5 percent of their subjects washed their hands properly after using the restroom. Thirty-three percent used water without soap, and 10 percent didn’t bother to wash their hands at all.
Other situations that require handwashing include:
- Before, during and after food preparation
- Before eating a meal or snack
- Before and after caring for someone who is ill
- Before and after treating a wound
- After assisting a child in using the restroom or changing a diaper
- After blowing your nose, sneezing or coughing
- Before touching your eyes (as when inserting or removing contact lenses)
- After touching an animal or animal waste
- After touching garbage
How to Wash Your Hands
We all learned how to wash our hands as children, but we may not have learned to do so correctly. It takes 15 to 20 seconds of vigorous handwashing with soap and water to kill of all the germs according to the CDC. However, the Michigan State University study found that most people who bothered to wash their hands only spent about six seconds. Make sure you—and your family—are handwashing correctly by following these steps from the CDC:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (any temperature will do).
- Apply soap generously.
- Rub your hands together vigorously to create a lather. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under the tips of your nails.
- Scrub for at least 20 seconds.
- Rinse your hands thoroughly under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands with a clean towel or allow them to air dry.
If you don’t have access to soap and water, you can utilize an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Look for one that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Studies have found that non-alcohol hand sanitizers do not work well on all classes of germs, can cause germs to develop a resistance to the sanitizing chemical, and are more likely to irritate the skin than alcohol-based hand sanitizers are.
Because even alcohol-based hand sanitizers have been found less effective against certain types of germs, it’s best to wash your hands with soap and clean, running water whenever possible. And remember: the fewer doctor visits you make each year, the lower your overall healthcare costs, even with insurance.