Washing your hands isn’t rocket science. But you’d think it was, in light of how many people don’t do it right or don’t do it at all.

In fact, a significant percentage of people don’t even get close to a faucet.

At most, a proper hand wash takes less than one minute, but its benefits are numerous. Health officials have been recommending hand-washing as an effective method of curbing the spread of infections, including the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 1,000 people worldwide. The number of people infected has reached more than 40,000, according to a statement Tuesday by the director-general of the World Health Organization.

Meanwhile, the CDC estimates the flu has already taken between 12,000 and 30,000 lives in the U.S. this season.

“Hand-washing is the number one way to prevent the spread of any kind of infection, whether that’s viral or bacterial,” said Ashley Rampley, an infection prevention specialist at Boone Hospital Center.

Yet, in some unscientific research conducted recently by the Missourian, 20% of people did not wash or rinse their hands at all after using a urinal or stall. Only a few abided by the CDC’s hand-washing guidelines.

The five basic steps are wet, lather, scrub, rinse and dry. The temperature of the water doesn’t matter, but warm water may cause more skin irritation and has more negative environmental impact (warm water = energy used).

Lathering the soap in your hands helps lift grease, dirt and microbes. The CDC suggests scrubbing your hands while humming the “Happy Birthday” song twice from beginning to end, which should take around 20 seconds if you’re not speed-singing.

When it comes to drying, it’s important not to skimp. Dry hands are better at preventing the spread of diseases because germs transfer more easily to and from wet hands.

Yet, not many people are willing to make the 20-second sacrifice. Among the sample of 100 random people in the Missourian’s research, only 11 cleaned their hands thoroughly before stepping out of the restroom. Almost everyone dries their hands.

While most people briefly rinsed their hands under running water, they didn’t scrub with soap long enough to kill germs.

“Well, if you’re just running your hands under the water for four seconds, it’s not going to be effective,” Rampley said. “But if you scrub your hands for the full 20 seconds they recommend, and you’re truly scrubbing your hands all over, you’ll decrease your chances of getting any kind of infections.”

The majority of people in the Missourian’s sample washed their hands for less than 20 seconds. That doesn’t just mean they’re more likely to catch diseases. There’s a greater risk they’ll spread germs to others, too.

What about hand sanitizer?

There’s a chance that those who didn’t wash their hands in the bathroom with soap and water opted for hand sanitizer instead. Unfortunately, studies have shown that sanitizers don’t reduce the number of germs on your hands in some circumstances. For instance, the ethanol-based disinfectants don’t protect you from influenza A viruses. If hand sanitizer is all you have in a particular situation, it’s better than nothing. But it’s no substitute for washing your hands properly at a sink and then drying them.

The type of soap used isn’t actually that important, especially for ordinary people. While hospital workers like Rampley use specific soaps, any type of soap should suffice for the general public, as long as you scrub your hands thoroughly.

When should you wash your hands?

There’s a pretty long answer to that question because of how important hand hygiene is.

The obvious times you should wash your hands include:

  • Before, after and during food preparation.
  • Before you eat.
  • After using the restroom.
  • After handling garbage.
  • Whenever your hands are visibly soiled.

When you’re out and about in public spaces, it’s good practice to be aware of hand hygiene, too.

“After touching any kind of a surface in public, like when you’re touching a cart in Walmart, you would want to sanitize your hands after that,” Rampley said.

Other times to wash your hands include after treating cuts or wounds, after touching animals and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. It’s also important to wash your hands before and after caring for someone who is sick.

Education is key to good hygiene

Christelle Ilboudo, a pediatrics infectious disease physician at MU Health Care, believes education is key in promoting hand hygiene.

However, many people who know how important hand-washing is still don’t wash their hands thoroughly.

“I think for some people, it might be because of how far the sink is, or is it cold water that is running, or how far they have to go to get the soap, or how the soap feels on their hands,” Ilboudo said. “There are certain parameters around the experience of washing hands that may prevent people from washing their hands.”

Ilboudo believes addressing those problems will go a long way in promoting proper hand-washing.

Another way to encourage hand hygiene is to include messaging on bathroom walls that explains the importance of hand-washing. Ilboudo also brought up the effectiveness of “glow” tests, whereby UV glow boxes are used to show people the microscopic bacteria on their hands. This helps illustrate how easy it is for people to spread bacteria and diseases to others.

Still, people come up with copious excuses to get out of hand-washing.

“My personal favorite is when people, or kids, say things like, ‘But I didn’t touch the toilet.’ Like, really?” Ilboudo said. “So, again, just teaching them that it’s microscopic. You can’t see what you’re carrying out of the bathroom stall, because there isn’t visible soiling.”

Ilboudo said many public schools in Columbia do a good job of teaching children how to wash their hands. Experts visit the schools to demonstrate proper hand-washing and why it’s important.

“Even though we learn this at a young age, these are lessons that need to be reinforced over time,” she said. “What I’ve heard is people might say, ‘Well, I’m healthy. For the past five years, I haven’t seen a doctor.’”

“But,” she added, “that doesn’t necessarily equate to them understanding the importance of washing their hands.”

  • Public Health and Safety reporter, Spring 2020. Studying Magazine Writing. Reach me at ckkfc@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • Public health and safety reporter, spring 2020. Studying news reporting. Reach me at cgiffin@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • I'm the public safety and health editor at the Missourian and a professor in the School of Journalism. I'm experienced in directing investigative projects. Call me at (573) 882-1792 with story tips, ideas or complaints.

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