Grace Weatherby
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2023

Keep Germs & Illness at Bay with Proper Handwashing

Sometimes referred to as "a do-it-yourself vaccine," handwashing is one of the easiest ways to prevent contracting and spreading illnesses ranging from flu and colds to COVID and RSV. In fact, proper handwashing can help prevent 1 in 5 respiratory illnesses, 1 in 3 diarrheal illnesses, and if practiced regularly on a global scale, could prevent up to 1 million deaths from preventable disease each year.

While more Americans than ever report washing their hands more diligently due to flu and/or coronavirus outbreaks, a study by the USDA found that 97% of the time, people aren’t washing their hands properly. And what could they possibly get wrong? Well, among the biggest mistakes are not washing your hands for at least 20 seconds and not drying them with a clean towel.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, here’s the right way to wash up:

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. 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 an air dryer.

Of course, there are situations where soap and running water aren’t an option. In those cases, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol will do the trick. But just like using soap and water, there’s a right way to get the job done. Here’s how to properly use hand sanitizer to reduce germs.

Apply the gel product to the palm of one hand (read the label to learn the correct amount).

Cover all surfaces of hands.

Rub your hands and fingers together until they are dry. This should take around 20 seconds.

As convenient as hand sanitizer is, it’s important to note that it does have limitations. For example, sanitizers do not get rid of all types of germs, and it may not be as effective when used on hands that are visibly dirty or greasy. Further, you should not count on hand sanitizer to remove harmful chemicals, like pesticides, from your hands.

 The other key to avoiding getting sick and/or spreading germs is knowing WHEN to wash your hands. Must-do times include:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up 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.

For an extra measure of safety, you can also wash your hands every time you return home to avoid introducing germs from work, daycare, the grocery store, or anywhere else you’ve been to your family. Or, if someone in your home is sick, you may want to wash your hands as soon as you get to work or elsewhere to avoid introducing the illness to others.


Donna Barron BA, RN, CIC, is the infection preventionist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.


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