Yes, There Is a Correct Way to Wash Your Hands—Here's How

Washing your hands the right way can significantly reduce your risk of illness.

One of the best ways to protect yourself from harmful bacteria and viruses is the simplest: using the correct way to wash your hands. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hand-washing is one of the most effective steps to avoid getting sick and prevent the spread of germs. Although washing your hands might seem straightforward, how you do it (and for how long) is hugely important. And with help from a blacklight, the noticeable difference between clean and dirty hands is shocking.

The set of six photos, above, shared by Kristen Bell on Instagram demonstrates various methods of washing up. The unwashed hand and those that were simply rinsed with water show significant levels of left-behind germs, represented by the lighter areas illuminated by the blacklight. As the remaining photos show, adding soap results in a much better clean, with the most effective strategy being a 30-second scrub using soap.

US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health

Good hand-washing habits can reduce your risk of respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold and the flu, by 21%.

—US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health

Using the correct way to wash your hands significantly impacts your risk of infectious disease. Research shows that good hand-washing habits can reduce your risk of respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold and the flu, by 21%. For gastrointestinal conditions, such as the stomach flu, your risk is reduced by 31%. Follow these steps to wash your hands correctly, and protect yourself and others.

The Correct Way to Wash Your Hands

woman washing hands in sink
Nontapan Nuntasiri/EyeEm/Getty Images

A simple rinse with water is not an effective way to banish germs. The best method for washing your hands requires soap, running water, and several seconds of scrubbing. The CDC recommends this five-step hand-washing process:

  1. Start by wetting your hands with clean, running water (which can be warm or cold) and apply soap.
  2. Rub your hands together to create a lather, making sure to cover the palms and backs of your hands, in between your fingers, around your nailbeds, and under your fingernails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, or about the same amount of time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song from start to finish twice.
  4. Rinse the soap off under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or allow them to air-dry. To prevent cross-contamination, use a paper towel or tissue to turn off the tap.

When to Wash Your Hands

You should wash your hands frequently throughout the day, especially after touching potentially germy areas like public bathrooms and transportation. 

Always wash your hands after: 

  • Using the bathroom 
  • Preparing food
  • Changing a diaper 
  • Blowing your nose 
  • Coughing or sneezing 
  • Treating wounds 
  • Caring for a sick person 
  • Handling pets or pet food
  • Touching garbage 

It's also a good idea to wash your hands after coming in contact with high-touch places such as doorknobs, light switches, faucet handles, stair railings, and other public surfaces. Additionally, wash your hands before eating or preparing food, treating wounds, caring for a sick person, and inserting or removing contact lenses. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, mouth, and face in between washes to limit the transfer of bacteria from your hands into the body.

When to Use Hand Sanitizer

Although hand sanitizer isn't as effective as washing your hands, it's a good substitute when soap and water aren't available. To quickly reduce germs on your hands, use an alcohol-based sanitizer ($6, Walmart) with at least 60% alcohol, which should be noted on the product label. Pump the sanitizer into your hands and rub them together until dry, taking care to cover all surfaces of your hands and fingers.

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