First defense against coronavirus: 20 seconds of proper hand-washing
95% of people don’t wash their hands correctly
Feb. 19, 2020
When people ask how to protect themselves against the alarming spread of coronavirus COVID-19, one of the first suggestions from doctors is a common-sense one: Wash your hands – but do it the right way.
Your hands collect bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms from any nonsterile surface – or people – and transfer them to others, or to you.
Hands are “the body part we touch everything with,” says Dr. David Coil of UC Davis. “Most bacteria of interest are not growing on the hands, they’re just being passed from place to place there.”
Samples taken from health care workers’ hands in a 2009 study found a variety of bacteria on one square centimeter of skin.
The study found a bacterial count ranging from 39,000 to 460,000 in an area about the size of your smallest fingernail.
Not all bacteria will harm you, of course. Some are greatly beneficial. However, “some common bacteria, such as Staphylococcus, can cause serious infection,” notes Dr. Coil.
“The only way to get contaminated matter off your hands is to wash them,” Dr. Platchek says. “Washing lifts microbes off the skin and sends them down the drain.”
Think you’re washing long enough? Take the test
Try to guess if you’ve washed your hands long enough:
If your test results were not as good as you hoped, don’t feel alone. A Michigan State University study in 2013 observed the hand-washing habits of 3,749 students in different restrooms on and off campus in a college town. Percentage of those who did not and did wash, and for how long:
You’re likely doing it wrong
Follow these steps to ensure all parts of your hands are clean:
1. Wet your hands thoroughly to the wrist. Wetting hands produces more lather for cleaning. Water temperature does not make a difference, but extremely hot water can irritate skin. Turn off the tap to save water.
2. Apply soap, enough to cover both hands. Plain soap is fine. Studies show antibacterial soaps have little additional benefit.
3. Lather your hands by rubbing them together palm to palm.
4. Rub your right palm over the back of your left hand, interlacing your fingers, then switch left over right.
5. Rub palms together with fingers interlaced.
6. Scrub the backs of fingers and fingernails in cupped palms with fingers together.
7. Scrub your left thumb by turning and rubbing it in your right palm. Do the same for the right thumb and left palm.
8. Scrub your left palm with clasped fingers of your right hand and vice versa.
9. Rinse with running water. A basin of standing water may be contaminated by previous use.
10. Wet hands can still carry germs so dry thoroughly with a single-use towel or air dryer. Use towel to turn off tap.
No soap? You can use hand sanitizer in a pinch; its alcohol content kills germs. Make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol and follow directions.
When should you wash?
Proper washing reduces the number of germs on your hands. Researchers recommend you wash:
- After using the bathroom.
- Before you eat.
- Any time your hands are visibly dirty.
- After handling raw meat.
- More often if you have a cold or flu.
- After blowing your nose.
- After feeding or playing with a pet.
- After treating a cut or wound.
- After disposing of trash or garbage.
What’s the success rate?
The Michigan State study found:
The study also showed women were much more hygienic than men. Percentage who washed hands with soap by sex:
We seldom stop to think about how we transfer germs by touching things, which are later touched by other people.
Germs on your hands can be transferred to: Yourself, by touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Food and drink, through preparation or consumption. Other people, by shaking hands. Other objects, such as handrails, doorknobs, tabletops and others.
Medical sources say washing your hands isn’t a guarantee against infections of coronavirus or any other disease. It will, however, provide a stronger first defense against illness.