Why You Should Wash Your Hands (and How to Do It Right)

UV light Showing Bacteria on Hand
Ultraviolet (UV) light showing bacteria on a persons hand. The hands have had a gel applied to them and then been washed. When viewed under UV light the gel fluoresces to show areas that have not been adequately cleaned. This illustrates the importance of thorough hand washing to remove bacteria and prevent the harmful effects of cross-contamination. Science Photo Library/Getty Images

There are an estimated 1,500 bacteria per square centimeter of skin on your hand. One of the best ways to prevent bacteria related illnesses and other infectious disease is to wash your hands with soap and water.

While most everyone has heard this message, studies have shown that people still are not washing their hands the right way—in fact, washing alone is not enough to prevent the spread of bacteria and other germs. After washing, you must also dry your hands thoroughly with a clean towel or air dryer. Learning good hand-hygiene habits is essential to reducing the spread of germs.

Germs Are Everywhere

Germs, such as bacteria and viruses, are microscopic and not readily visible to the naked eye. Just because you can't see them, doesn't mean that they aren't there. In fact, some bacteria live on your skin and some even live inside you. Germs commonly reside on everyday objects such as cell phones, shopping carts, and your toothbrush. They can be transferred from contaminated objects to your hands when you touch them. Some of the most common ways that germs get transferred to your hands is through handling raw meat, by using the toilet or changing a diaper, by coughing or sneezing, and after contact with pets.

Pathogenic bacteria, viruses, fungi and other germs cause disease in humans. These germs gain access to the body as they are transfered from person to person or from contact with contaminated surfaces. Once inside the body, the germs avoid the body's immune system and are capable of producing toxins that make you sick. The most common causes of foodborne diseases and food poisoning are bacteria, viruses and parasites. Reactions to these germs (a few of which are listed below) can range from mild gastric discomfort and diarrhea to death.

  • MRSA - a type of superbug, that can cause serious infections and are difficult to treat due to their resistance to antibiotics.
  • Clostridium difficile - antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can cause serious diarrhea and stomach pain.
  • E. coli - pathogenic strains of these bacteria cause intestinal disease, urinary tract infections, and meningitis.
  • Salmonella - cause the illness salmonellosis, which results in nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

How Hand Washing Prevents the Spread of Germs

Proper hand washing and drying is the most effective method of preventing the spread of disease, as it removes the dirt and germs that can be spread to others and helps to keep the environment around you clean. According to the CDC, properly washing and drying your hands reduces your risk of getting sick with diarrhea by 33 percent. It also reduces your risk of getting a respiratory illness by up to twenty percent.

Having clean hands is important because people often use their hands to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth. Contact with these areas gives germs, like the flu virus, access to the inside of the body where they can cause illness, and can also spread skin and eye infections.

You should always wash your hands after touching anything that may be soiled or have a high probability of being contaminated with germs, such as raw meat, and after using the toilet. 

How to Wash Your Hands Properly

Washing Hands
Washing your hands with soap and water is a simple measure that can be taken to help prevent illness. Credit: slobo/Getty Images

Washing your hands is a simple process that yields great health benefits. The key is being sure to wash and dry your hands properly to remove dirt, bacteria, and other germs. There are four simple steps to washing your hands. These are:

  1. Use warm running water to wet your hands while rubbing them with soap.
  2. Rub your hands together being sure to lather the back of the hands and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds.
  4. Rinse your hands under running water to remove the soap, dirt, and germs.

The Healthiest Way to Dry Your Hands

Girl drying hands
Girl drying hands. jessica lewis / Getty Images

Drying your hands is a step that should not be ignored in the cleaning process. Properly drying your hands does not include wiping your hands on your clothes to dry them. Drying your hands with a paper towel or using a hand dryer without rubbing your hands together are most effective at keeping bacteria counts low. Rubbing your hands together while drying them under a hand dryer offsets the benefits of hand washing by bringing bacteria within the skin to the surface. These bacteria, along with any that were not removed by washing, can then be transferred to other surfaces.

How to Use Hand Sanitizers

Woman Applying Hand Sanitizer
Woman Applying Hand Sanitizer. Glasshouse Images / Getty Images

The best option for removing dirt and germs from your hands is soap and water. However, some hand sanitizers can serve as an alternative when soap and water are not available. Hand sanitizers should not be used as a replacement for soap and water because they are not as effective at removing dirt or food and oils that may get on the hands after eating. Hand sanitizers work by coming into direct contact with bacteria and other germs. The alcohol in the sanitizer breaks down the bacterial cell membrane and destroys the germs. When using a hand sanitizer, be sure that it is alcohol-based and contains at least 60% alcohol. Use a paper towel or cloth to remove any dirt or food on your hands. Apply the hand sanitizer as directed on the instructions. Rub the sanitizer all over your hands and between your fingers until your hands are dry.

Sources

  • "Why Wash Your Hands?" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated November 08, 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/why-handwashing.html.
  • "When & How to Wash Your Hands" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated September 4, 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html.