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Hand hygiene probably isn’t something you think about on a daily basis—it’s an automatic action for most us—but it’s an important part of keeping your body healthy. Practically everything we touch contains bacteria, viruses, and other harmful germs, which can transfer to our hands and cause any number of illnesses ranging from mild (like the common cold) to potentially fatal (like an E. coli infection).
In fact, you may be reading this article on your cell phone or tablet, items that recently made our “Filthy 5” list of everyday items where germs hide. And because we touch these items constantly, it’s important to practice good hand hygiene.
Why We Should Wash Our Hands
Washing our hands not only protects them from germs. It also protects our eyes, nose, and mouth; we often touch those parts of our body with our hands without even realizing it, thus making us more perceptible to infection.
And if we don’t wash our hands before cooking, eating, or serving a meal, germs can transfer from our hands to the food we’re consuming, which can harm us and others. Germs from our hands also can easily transfer to other surfaces and to other people’s hands, which can cause diarrhea and respiratory, eye, and skin infections.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if a community is properly educated about the importance of hand hygiene, it can reduce the number of people who get sick from diarrhea by 31 percent, as well as reduce respiratory illnesses by 16 to 21 percent.
But if you’ve been washing your hands the same way since your parents taught you as a young child, you’re probably overdue for an update on the most effective methods of hand hygiene as recommended by medical experts.
How to Practice Hand Hygiene
You should take the following steps to effectively remove dirt and bacteria from your hands, according to the CDC:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap. The temperature of the water you doesn’t affect its ability to remove bacteria, says the CDC. In fact, water that’s too warm can cause skin irritation and is costlier.
- 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 to lift dirt, grease, and bacteria from the skin.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Try humming the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice while you scrub. The optimal length of time for handwashing is likely to depend on many factors, including the type and amount of soil on the hands and where the person is their washing hands. Evidence, however, suggests that washing your hands for 15 to 30 removes more germs than washing them for shorter periods of time.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water. Rinsing your hands with standing water could re-contaminate them if the water was used by someone else. And if you use a bit of paper towel to turn off the faucet after rinsing your hands, that may not be necessary, according to the CDC. There are no studies that show it improves overall health, plus it leads to increased use of paper towels.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them. Germs can be transferred more easily with wet hands than with dried hands, so this is an important step.
When You Should Wash Your Hands?
According to the CDC, you should always wash your hands before and/or after doing the following activities to protect yourself and others from harmful germs that can cause serious illnesses:
- 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 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 treats
- After touching garbage
What About Air Dryers in Public Restrooms?
If you haven’t heard of the recent study regarding the hot-air dryers that are installed in many public restrooms, you’ll want to read further.
The researchers of the study, which was conducted by the University of Connecticut and Quinnipiac University, placed germ-collecting plates in 36 men’s and women’s bathrooms. Some plates sat for two minutes in still air, while others were held 12 inches from a dryer’s nozzle and exposed to its hot air for 30 seconds.
The plates that weren’t exposed to the dryers collected an average of six bacterial colonies after 18 hours, while the ones exposed to the dryer collected an average of 254 bacterial colonies.
It’s important to note, however that the results from the study didn’t show that the bacteria from the hot-air dryers is dangerous to humans with healthy immune systems.
Another study, which was published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, found that people who used jet dryers had 4.5 times more bacteria on their hands that those who used a warm-air dryer and 27 times more bacteria than people who used paper towels.
The Best Hand Hygiene Methods Without Soap or Running Water
While washing your hands with soap and running water is the best method for removing dirt and bacteria, according to experts, there are times when you don’t have immediate access to a sink. The two most widely used options are hand sanitizing gels and antibacterial hand wipes, but which method does the job better?
Let’s back up for a moment: Most hand sanitizing gels contain an alcohol concentration between 60 and 95 percent, although products containing lower alcohol concentrations or no alcohol at all are also available. According to the CDC, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are more effective at killing germs than ones containing lower alcohol concentrations or no alcohol at all. Keep in mind, though, that the more alcohol the gel contains, the more irritating it can be to your skin.
It’s also important to know that hand sanitizing gels don’t eliminate all types of germs and aren’t as effective if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. Parents are cautioned to keep hand sanitizing gels away from children; swallowing them can cause alcohol poisoning.
To use hand sanitizing gel correctly, the CDC recommends applying the amount of product as recommended on the label to the palm of the hand and rubbing it all over the surfaces of your hands until they’re dry.
Depending on the type of antibacterial hand wipes chosen, some use alcohol as the main sanitizing ingredient while others use benzethonium chloride or natural ingredients. Wipes are preferred by many consumers because they can be used to wipe away visible dirt and grease, plus they tend to be less irritating on your skin. Some brands are also labeled as hypoallergenic.
According to the CDC, the use of alcohol-based hand wipes is not an effective substitute for hand sanitizing gels. But a recent study published in the American Journal of Infection Control states that alcohol-based hand wipes containing 65.9 percent ethanol are significantly more effective than a hand-sanitizing gel containing 62 percent ethanol in reducing the number of viable bacteria and pores on the hands.
No matter which method you choose, it’s important to remember that the traditional method of hand hygiene—plain old soap and water—is still best.