What’s the best way to avoid getting sick? Washing your hands! It’s especially important to remember handwashing this time of year when respiratory illnesses—like the flu—are circulating. Touching your eyes, nose or mouth with germy hands is the most common way to catch a virus.
“Germs are all around us. The door handle you touched today, the table top at lunch, the phone or computer you’re reading this from right now, they are all covered in germs,” says Traci Gonzales, APRN, PNP-C, AE-C, pediatric nurse practitioner and volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association. “Not all germs will cause illness, but many of them can and will. Good handwashing habits are one of the most important ways we can prevent germs from spreading and decrease the chance of becoming sick.”
It makes sense that you need to be vigilant about keeping your hands clean (and away from your face). But did you know that many people aren’t washing their hands the right way? Some typical mistakes include not scrubbing long enough, not using soap and skipping key handwashing situations.
Wet, Lather, Scrub, Rinse and Dry
“For handwashing to be effective, you must ensure that you rub soap over all parts of your hands, including under the nails. You should scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds and either air dry or use a clean towel to dry completely,” says Gonzales.
Lather (with soap to lift dirt and germs from your skin)
Scrub (for at least 20 seconds and get between your fingers and under your nails)
Rinse (using clean, running water to wash away soap, dirt and germs)
Dry (with a clean towel or air dry)
Using soap, lathering and scrubbing helps create friction to lift dirt, grease and microbes (including disease-causing germs). The better you do this, the more germs you’re going to get rid of when you rinse off. Even the most efficient person can’t get their hands clean in less than 20 seconds – there are too many areas to scrub. A good trick to know you’re washing long enough is to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice while scrubbing. Drying is an important step because germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands.
Back Up with Hand Sanitizer
Properly washing with soap and water is always going to be your best bet to get rid of dirt and germs. But sometimes you might not have access to soap and running water, and that is when hand sanitizer is a useful backup.
“Hand sanitizer is a good option when clean water and soap are not available,” says Gonzales. “However, if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy, sanitizer will not be able to effectively kill the germs on your hands.”
The CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
Know When to Wash
If you’re just washing your hands when they’re visibly dirty or only after using the restroom, you’re likely missing some key handwashing times—and putting your health at risk. Here are some other times you should wash your hands:
Getting kids to properly wash their hands starts with you.
“Lead by example,” suggests Gonzales. “Point out to your kids when you are washing your hands after using the restroom and before eating. Make sure they learn the habit of washing their hands multiple times a day. Teaching them to sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice while they are washing their hands will help make sure they are scrubbing long enough.”
If the Happy Birthday isn’t your kids’ jam, try another tune they like—maybe the alphabet song or a ditty from a favorite cartoon character—as long as it’s at least 20 seconds long.