Frequent and thorough handwashing is the best way to prevent infection. The sooner you wash your hands after exposure, the less likely you are to catch or spread infection.
When should you wash your hands?
Hands should be washed often. This means more often than most adults and children actually do. Bacteria and other germs can only be seen under a microscope, so they can be anywhere. According to the CDC, it is especially important to wash your hands:
- Before preparing food
- Before meals
- Before and after treating an open sore, cut, or wound
- After using the bathroom
- After touching animals or animal waste
- After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has gone to the bathroom
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After handling garbage
- When hands are dirty
- When someone around you is ill
Steps for handwashing
At home or work, wash your hands often—and correctly:
- Use clean, running water. The water can be warm or cold; either works well.
- Wet your hands before applying soap.
- Rub your soapy hands together for at least 20 seconds. Wash all surfaces well. This includes your wrists, palms, backs of hands, and between fingers.
- Clean under your fingernails and remove any dirt.
- Rinse your hands thoroughly to remove all soap.
- Dry your hands with an air dryer or a clean paper towel.
- Turn off the faucet with a paper towel.
If soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol can be used to clean your hands. When using this type of product:
- Put the sanitizer in the palm of one hand.
- Rub your hands together.
- Rub the sanitizer over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until they are dry. This takes about 20 seconds.
Hand sanitizer vs hand washing
If no sink is available, use the alcohol-based handwashing cleanser approved by your facility. Be sure it contains no less than 60% alcohol. These products are fast-acting and significantly reduce the number of germs on the skin. Unfortunately, they don't work on all types of germs in the hospital. Wash with soap and water as soon as you can.
Remember: When you wash your hands, the longer you wash, the more germs you’ll remove. Time yourself the next time you wash your hands. It may take longer than you think to get rid of germs.
Dr. Jennifer Bertsch specializes in Internal Medicine at Crescent City Physicians, Inc., a subsidiary of Touro Infirmary. After earning her medical degree from Louisiana State University School of Medicine, Dr. Bertsch completed her residency in Internal Medicine at LSU Hospitals and Clinics.