- The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that washing your hands is one of the best ways to protect yourself from the coronavirus.
- Wash your hands for around 20 seconds to rinse away germs and avoid illness.
- Hand soap is more effective than hand sanitizer at protecting you from certain infectious diseases.
- This article was medically reviewed by Tania Elliott, MD, who specialises in infectious diseases related to allergies and immunology for internal medicine at NYU Langone Health.
- This story is part of Insider’s guide on How to Kill Germs.
Hand-washing takes less than half a minute, yet an estimated 97% of people do it wrong. That’s a big problem since the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that one of the most effective ways to protect yourself from the coronavirus is to wash your hands regularly. Here’s a step-by-step guide for how to wash your hands to protect yourself from getting sick.
How to wash your hands
Washing your hands the right way isn’t hard, but it may involve more steps than you’re currently doing. Here’s a 5-step guide,directly from the CDC, for how to wash your hands correctly:
- First, wet your hands with running water. Turn off the faucet once you’re done wetting to conserve water.
- Apply the soap and rub it between your hands to produce a nice, thick lather. Apply the lather to the back and side of your hands, as well as in between the fingers, and especially under the fingernails.
- Continue applying the lather and scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Don’t rinse for much longer than that.
- Rinse the lather off with clean, running water.
- Last but not least, dry your hands with either an air drier or a clean towel.
When to wash your hands
Your hands are a petri dish for germs, so it’s important to wash them regularly to protect yourself from infectious diseases like the coronavirus. To protect yourself from the coronavirus, specifically, the CDC says to wash after going to the bathroom, blowing your nose, sneezing, or coughing. You should also wash your hands before eating anything.
Other times you should wash your hands include:
- After taking out the garbage.
- After handling dirty diapers or animal poop.
- Before, during, after food preparation.
- Before and after caring for a sick person.
- For a complete list, visit the CDC’s website on how and when to wash your hands.
Why you should wash your hands for 20 seconds
“It’s recommended that you wash your hands for the amount of time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice – about 20 seconds,” says family physician Dr. Sarah Borwein, MD. “Twenty seconds has been shown to be the minimum amount of time it takes to really remove germs.”
If you don’t wash long enough, even with soap, it could backfire. “Chances are that you are not effectively removing all the disease-causing germs that are lurking on them,” Borwein tells Insider.
On the flip side, washing for too long can cause more problems, especially if you are using harsh soap. “It can result in skin that is dry, cracked or even bleeds,” Borwein says. “This interrupts the barrier protective function of the skin and allows germs to enter the body.”
Why you should wash your hands with cold or lukewarm water
A common misconception is that hot water is best to clean your hands.
“Many people believe that hotter water is better, but in fact, for the purposes of removing germs, there is no good evidence that water temperature matters,” Borwein says. “Using hot water can dry the hands out and lead to skin damage, so the recommendation is to use cold or warm water.”
As for the best method to effectively wash your hands, Borwein encourages rubbing your hands together “vigorously”, and covering all surfaces: the back of the hands, wrists, between the fingers, and under fingernails where grime gets stuck.
Plus, if you actually scrub all the right surfaces, hitting that 20-second mark should be easy.
Anti-bacterial soap has no added benefits
There are no added benefits to using anti-bacterial soap versus the plain kind, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, Borwein warns that it’s not even equally effective as an old-fashioned hand washing.
“Soap and water is actually the best way to remove germs from the hands. Hand sanitizer is a good alternative when soap and water is not readily available, or in some situations like hospitals and clinics, where you have to wash your hands a great many times per day and sometimes that isn’t realistic.”
Unlike washing hands with soap and water, sanitizer doesn’t remove all harmful germs on your hands. “For example, Norovirus [which causes vomiting and diarrhoea] is not effectively killed by hand sanitizer,” Borwein tells Insider.
Plus, sanitizer won’t work as effectively on visibly filthy hands because it won’t remove dirt as easily. So make sure to always wash after doing dirty work like taking out the trash, outdoor activities, or handling greasy items.
“If using alcohol sanitizer, it should contain at least 60% alcohol,” Borwein says. “And you should use enough – don’t be stingy with it. A rough size guide is a dime-size amount.”
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