The ABCs of Hand Washing
Roughly one-third of North Americans have forgotten one of the most basic lessons their mothers taught them: Wash your hands. Though 95 percent of North American adults say they scrub after using public rest rooms, researchers found that only 67 percent actually do.
At first it may seem ridiculous that serious scientists bothered to check on the matter. But hand washing is a serious issue. If, for example, you’re sick and you don’t wash your hands frequently, the warm, moist creases in your palms become perfect havens for disease-causing germs, making it easy for you to spread them directly to others or onto surfaces that others may touch. Soon, you’ll have lots of sniffling company.
Within Your Control
The important thing to remember is that some pretty serious diseases, including hepatitis A, meningitis, and infectious diarrhea, can easily be prevented if people make a habit of washing their hands. Used the right way, soap and hot water can remove most of the danger in seconds.
Common sense tells us that hands should be washed when they are dirty. But it’s also essential to wash them after coughing, sneezing, using tobacco, blowing into a handkerchief or tissue, using the bathroom or handling diapers, cleaning dirty surfaces, handling an animal, and before, during, and after preparing food. Studies have found that even when people wear gloves as a safety barrier, hand washing can significantly reduce transmission of infections.
Use Hot Water
A public opinion survey found that 3 in 10 North Americans don’t know that warmer water (somewhere between 37.7°C and 42.2°C) is more effective in eliminating germs. You are in the right range if the water feels comfortably toasty.
When researchers compared bacteria counts on the hands of 50 ring-wearing health-care workers to those of 50 who did not wear rings, they discovered that ring wearers had higher counts of staph bacteria both before and after hand washing. Hand washing reduced staph counts by 46 percent for those without rings-but only 29 percent for those with rings.
The lesson: Before washing, remove your jewelry, then wash your jewelry and your hands.
Unless you or someone in your family is quite ill or has weakened immunity, avoid antibacterial cleansers. Wash with the mildest soap available, preferably one that contains a moisturizer. Germs from other people’s hands can cling to bars of soap, so it is better to use a squirt of liquid soap. Liquid soap dispensers can become contaminated, so use disposable ones or clean reusable ones often.
Take Your Time
Once your hands are lathered up, timing is critical. One study demonstrated that a five-second rinse with water alone made essentially no difference in the number of certain bacteria on the fingertips. A 30-second wash with water plus soap, however, eradicated them all. Forgot your watch? Vigorously rub your hands together for about as long it takes to say the alphabet slowly. Cover all surfaces: fronts, backs, and sides of hands and fingers, as well as spaces between fingers and under fingernails.
Cold water is fine for rinsing. The physical force of the water is what carries dirt and germs down the drain.
Wipe your hands well after washing. The friction from drying rubs off most remaining microbes. One study found that when people with colds washed but still-wet hands touched skin and food, they transferred 68,000 microorganisms to skin and 31,000 microorganisms to food. The most effective way to dry? Use a clean paper towel to turn off the faucet. Then take a fresh paper towel and dry your hands with it for 10 seconds. Finally, let your hands air dry for 20 seconds. Cloth towels hold on to germs from previous users; paper towels are cleaner.