Hand washing seems like a pretty easy concept to master: soap, water, scrub. How difficult can it be? Well, only 5 percent of people wash their hands long enough to kill germs, according to a study out of Michigan State University. And if you short-change yourself on the hand scrubbing, you leave yourself at risk of developing plenty of infections and illness from icky things like Salmonella, E. coli, and more.
Whether it’s cold and flu season or just another day in a world full of germs, you want to make sure you’re aware of (and actually doing!) the best bug-killing practices. Hand washing is at the top of the list.
Although it can feel like a tedious task, it’s “one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others,” the CDC states. And there’s a way to do it right (and even things you can do wrong).
Here, infectious disease experts Amesh Adalja, MD, of Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, and Michael Joshua Hendrix, MD, of Washington University School of Medicine break down everything you need to know about hand washing—from how long you should be at the sink to whether or not antibacterial soap even works.
How long should I wash my hands, for real?
“There’s no magic number, but washing your hands for at least 20 seconds has been shown to remove more microbes than washing for shorter periods does,” Dr. Hendrix says. You may have heard this trick before, but singing “Happy Birthday” twice is a good way to ensure you’re washing for long enough, Dr. Adalja says. If you’re not a big “Happy Birthday” fan, the Los Angeles Times reported on a few other songs verses (including Beyonce’s “Love on Top” chorus!) that will make your 20 seconds fly by.
If you’re a few seconds short and wash your hands for, say, 15 seconds rather than 20, it’s not a huuuge deal. “Any amount of washing would provide more protection than none at all,” Dr. Hendrix notes. But try to stick to that 20-second sweet spot.
Now walk me through *perfect* hand washing technique.
Dr. Hendrix recommends this five-step process for optimal hand washing:
A few things worth pointing out: Notice that Dr. Hendrix said to use warm or cold water. The temperature of the water doesn’t matter much and “does not appear to affect microbe removal,” Dr. Hendrix says. In other words, you don’t need to use scalding water to burn away bugs. The key is to make sure that the water is *clean.* So using running water from a sink is your safest option. “Hands could become re-contaminated if placed in a basin of standing water that has been contaminated through previous use,” he notes.
Another good nugget to remember? Do not just focus on palm of your hands. You want to make sure to lather and scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails too. “The more thorough you are the better,” Dr. Adalja says.
When it comes to soap, what kind should I be using?
Antibacterial soap? Any ol’ regular soap? Dr. Hendrix says either one will do. Regular soaps work by directly removing germs while you wash your hands, and antibacterial soaps contain ingredients that target and kill bacteria, he explains. But, “there has been no data to show that one type of soap is any better than the other.”
Dr. Adalja even tends to steer clear of antibacterial soaps. Why? “Because there’s a lot of bacteria that are on your skin and some of them may not get a full dose of that antibacterial soap, and they can develop resistance,” Dr. Adalja explains. So if you don’t want to take the risk, just grab some regular soap and get scrubbing.
What about drying my hands?
“Germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands,” Dr. Hendrix says. So there’s definitely no question that they should be dried after washing.
Scrub your hands with soap for *at least* 20 seconds.
But what about technique—paper towel versus hand dryers? The answer is a little bit unknown at this point, but you may be better off with paper towels. “The best way to dry hands remains unclear, because few studies about hand drying exist,” Dr. Hendrix says. But several studies have suggested that high-speed jet air dryers spread germs, rather than remove them. That’s why Dr. Adalja recommends playing it safe by using paper towels.
If I’m in a pinch, is hand sanitizer okay?
Absolutely. “Hand sanitizer does work,” Dr. Adalja says. “It’s alcohol based and it can be effective against many pathogens on your hands.” Just make sure that when shopping for hand sanitizer, you’re buying one that’s a) not expired and b) contains enough alcohol. Dr. Hendrix recommends hand sanitizers with 60 percent alcohol. And when it comes to application, you don’t need to pour it on. A dab is fine—just make sure you cover both the front and back of your hands, Dr. Adalja says.
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