Hand washing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of bacterial and viral illnesses.

Throughout the day, people’s hands accumulate germs and dirt as they touch objects and other people. Individuals can then transfer these substances to others, or infect themselves when touching their face.

Regular hand washing can limit the transfer of microbes, such as bacteria and viruses. However, many people do not wash their hands properly or for long enough to get rid of the germs.

In this article, we explain how to wash the hands correctly and why it is so important.

To wash the hands, follow the simple steps in the diagram above. For a more in-depth guide to hand washing, follow these steps:

  1. Wet your hands with plenty of clean water.
  2. Cover all the surfaces of your hands in soap.
  3. Rub the palms together to form a lather.
  4. Rub the palm of one hand over the back of the other hand, making sure to clean in between your fingers. Repeat with the other hand.
  5. Rub the palms together again, and also clean in between the fingers again.
  6. Rub the backs of the fingers against the opposite palm, interlocking the fingers as you do this.
  7. Grasp the thumb of one hand with the other hand, and rotate the closed hand around the thumb to clean it. Repeat with the other thumb and hand.
  8. Rub the tips of the fingers of one hand on the palm of the other hand. Repeat with the other hand.
  9. If a clean nail brush is available, scrub gently under the nails.
  10. Rinse the hands under clean, running water.
  11. Dry them thoroughly, ideally, with a disposable towel. Alternatively, allow them to air dry.
  12. Use the towel (if you have one) to turn off the tap and then dispose of it.

The following tips may make hand washing easier and more effective:

Wash the hands regularly throughout the day

It is a good idea to wash the hands several times during the day. Key times to wash the hands include:

  • when they are visibly dirty
  • before and after preparing food
  • before eating
  • after using the toilet
  • after changing a diaper
  • after helping a child who has used the potty or toilet
  • before inserting or removing contact lenses
  • before touching the face
  • before and after treating wounds
  • after coughing, sneezing, or blowing the nose
  • before and after taking care of someone who is ill
  • after touching an animal or their food or waste
  • after handling garbage

Wash for at least 20 seconds

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend scrubbing the hands for at least 20 seconds. In the absence of a timer, they suggest singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice while washing.

Use any temperature water

Research indicates that different temperature waters do not have a significantly different effect on the number of bacteria that hand washing removes. The thorough washing technique is what removes the bacteria.

However, warm water can be more pleasant than cold water, especially when washing the hands for 20 seconds.

Use any type of soap

Plain soap and water are very effective at removing microbes from the skin. It does not matter what kind of soap a person uses.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is not enough evidence to show that over-the-counter antibacterial soaps are any better at killing microbes than regular soaps.

Encourage children to wash their hands

It is important that children wash their hands regularly, especially after playing outdoors, touching pets, using the toilet, and at other key times.

Adults should show children how to wash their hands correctly and encourage them to sing “Happy Birthday” twice to ensure they clean their hands for an adequate length of time.

Take care when drying the hands

Microbes transfer more easily to and from wet hands, so individuals should always dry their hands after they wash them.

How a person dries their hands also matters. Research indicates that both hot air hand dryers and cloth roller towels are less hygienic than disposable paper towels.

Hot air hand dryers, for example, can cause particles and microorganisms to disperse into the air. These microorganisms then contaminate the environment.

As an alternative to disposable paper towels, an individual can use a dry hand towel that they regularly wash at 140oF. Individuals should not share this towel with others.

Combat dry skin with hand cream

If frequent washing causes dry or cracked skin, it can be helpful to use a moisturizing hand cream or lotion throughout the day.

Cracked skin allows microbes to enter the body through the surface breaks more easily.

If dry, chapped, or painful skin becomes a persistent problem, it can indicate that an individual is over washing their hands. They should discuss any concerns they have with a doctor.

Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable

While washing with soap and water is the best way to remove bacteria and viruses from the skin, these two things are not always readily available.

At these times, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol is an acceptable alternative.

To use a hand sanitizer:

  1. Apply the recommended amount of gel to the palm of one hand.
  2. Cover all surfaces of the hands and fingers.
  3. Rub the hands together for approximately 20 seconds.

Note that hand sanitizers do not kill all types of microbes, and they will not remove visible dirt, grease, and chemicals from the skin.

There are different types of hand washing, including:

Routine, or social

This type of hand washing involves the use of soap and water. People perform this type to remove visible dirt, after using the toilet, before preparing food, and at other times. It usually lasts a few seconds.

Antiseptic

This type of hand washing uses water and antimicrobial soap. It removes or destroys microbes on the skin.

Medical professionals may use this method before touching a high risk patient, or after contact with a person with an infection.

Surgical

Medical professionals perform this hand washing, involving water and antiseptic soap, before all surgical procedures. It lasts for at least 2 minutes.

Proper hand washing is necessary to reduce the risk of:

  • transferring dirt and microbes to surfaces and other people
  • colds and flu
  • coronavirus (COVID-19)
  • viral infections that cause diarrhea, including norovirus
  • eye infections
  • superbugs, such as MRSA

Proper hand washing can prevent the spread of illness and infection. It is a simple yet effective technique that anyone can use.

To properly wash the hands, use soap and water, and rub every surface of the fingers and hands for at least 20 seconds. Thoroughly dry the hands on a disposable or clean towel, or allow to dry in the air.