You've Probably Been Washing Your Hands Wrong—Here's the Right Way to Do It (and Avoid Getting Sick)

Two medical experts explain exactly how, how often, and for how long to wash your hands to stop germs in their tracks.

I’m just going to be real with you: You probably haven’t been washing your hands properly. How do I know this? Because, according to a 2018 study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), consumers failed to wash their hands correctly 97 percent of the time. The authors of the study noted that rushed handwashing can lead to cross-contamination of food and surfaces, resulting in foodborne illness, among other things.

“As a mother of three young children, I am very familiar with the mad dash families go through to put dinner on the table,” Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy under secretary for food safety at the USDA, said in a statement. “You can’t see, smell, or feel bacteria. By simply washing your hands properly, you can protect your family and prevent bacteria from contaminating your food and key areas in your kitchen.”

So, how do you wash your hands the right way, anyway? We spoke to a couple of experts to find out how long to wash, how hard to scrub, and which soap you should use to get squeaky clean.

How long should you wash your hands for?

According to the above USDA study, we’re all getting it wrong when it comes to how long we spend scrubbing our hands. To help us all get it right, Brian Katzowitz, MS, a health communication specialist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s division of foodborne, waterborne, and environmental diseases, says all you need to do is sing “Happy Birthday.”

“We recommend scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds,” Katzowitz says. “An easy way to time it is to hum the 'Happy Birthday' song from beginning to end—twice.”

But, that’s not all. Felice Adler-Shohet, MD, FAAP, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at CHOC Children's, also says we all need to be “sure to scrub vigorously and take care to remember the backs of hands, between the fingers, and under the nails” while humming the birthday song.

How often should you wash your hands?

Katzowitz says, while the frequency of washes will vary for each person, it’s important to wash your hands often, “especially during key times when you’re likely to get and spread germs.”

Those key times include, but are not limited to, before preparing or eating food, after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or after touching garbage.

As for children, Dr. Adler-Shohet says parents need to implement good behavioral practices like washing hands before eating, after using the restroom, after playing outside, and after touching pets.

Can hand sanitizer substitute for soap and water?

If soap and water are not available, alcohol-based hand sanitizers can also be used. Just make sure to find one with an alcohol concentration between 60–95 percent as that will kill at least 99 percent of germs. However, the CDC notes that alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t kill all types of germs—such as norovirus, some parasites, and Clostridium difficile—so washing under a faucet with suds is still important.

“Hand sanitizers are a good, convenient alternative when you’re not near a sink and can’t wash your hands,” Dr. Adler-Shohet says. “While hand sanitizers will help to kill many—but not all—bacteria and viruses, they won’t remove stubborn dirt or grease or harmful chemicals. Handwashing with soap and water is preferred before preparing or eating food; after using the toilet; after handling animals or their food or waste; and when hands are visibly dirty.”

What’s the difference between bar and liquid soap?

Katzowitz says it’s fine to use either, but adds that it’s probably best to stay away from antibacterial soaps.

“Studies have not found any added health benefits from using soaps containing antibacterial ingredients when compared with plain soap,” he says. “Both are equally effective in getting rid of germs.”

Dr. Adler-Shohet further defends bar soaps, saying, “While some bars of soap may have bacteria on them, there’s no evidence that this bacteria would be transferred to another person using the soap or that it would make them sick.”

The only reason someone would want to go for a liquid over a bar, Dr. Adler-Shohet says, is because liquid soap may create a nicer lather and may be gentler for people with sensitive skin.

How can you keep your hands as clean as possible throughout the day?

Ultimately, Katzowitz says, our hands are going to get dirty. What’s important to remember is that “handwashing is one of the best ways to stop germs from spreading and from getting sick.” He adds that evidence shows handwashing can help prevent one in five respiratory illnesses and one in three diarrheal illnesses.

You can also take your cleanliness to another level by “coughing or sneezing into your upper arm or inner elbow,” Dr. Adler-Shohet says. “Avoid touching your face and be sure to use a tissue if you need to rub your eyes or nose.”

Want to learn more? Check out the CDC’s new handwashing campaign and spread the word—not the germs.

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