In light of the coronavirus, hand-washing is at an all-time-high "cool" status. But it's basically a moot point if you're not even doing it right. Here's how you should be washing your hands for maximum germ protection.

By Korin Miller
March 05, 2020
Sara Monika/Getty Images

When you were a kid, you got constant reminders to wash your hands. And, TBH, you probably needed them. (Have you touched a sticky toddler's hand and wondered, 'hm, what's that from'? Yeh, yuck.)

Fast forward to present day's coronavirus scare (with a hefty side of cold and flu season) and you're suddenly experiencing it all over again: You're getting bombarded with reminders that you should be washing your hands more and better. While major medical sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have being more vocal about the powers of proper handwashing, even celebrities are getting in on the action.

Kristen Bell recently shared a series of photos on Instagram of hands under a black light that had been through various stages of hand-washing. It's unclear where the image came from originally, but it appears to show that the more you wash your hands properly, the fewer germs will be left on them. Ultimately, it underscores the need to not only wash your hands but to do it well. "30 SECONDS WITH SOAP YALL!!!" she wrote/screamed in the caption.

It might seem ridiculous that as a grownup, you have to be reminded to wash your hands, but there's a reason for all this preaching about good hand hygiene: Most people aren't washing their hands and, when they are, they aren't doing it properly.

"As with any task, if it is not done correctly, consequences can happen," says Suzanne Willard, Ph.D., a clinical professor and associate dean for global health at the Rutgers School of Nursing. Often people think a quick rinse will do it, but then germs are left behind, she says.

So, let's get back to the basics of how to correctly wash your hands. Because, if you're being totally honest with yourself, you likely know you've been a bit lax most of your life with the whole soap and water thing.

Why You Should Be Washing Your Hands

Washing your hands can obviously help get rid of visible dirt and grime, but it also tackles germs and bacteria you can't see. Hand washing is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick, and prevent the spread of germs to others, according to the CDC.

Given that everyone is freaking out about coronavirus these days, it's important to note that the organization reports that, short of avoiding coming into contact with people who have coronavirus, washing your hands well and often is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus (and others like it, BTW).

3 Things You Probs Don't Know About Washing Your Hands

It's better than using hand sanitizer. Given the coronavirus climate, there's been a lot of attention on hand sanitizer lately, with stores everywhere selling out. But it's actually better for germ protection to go the soap and water route. Hand sanitizer can kill coronavirus but the CDC still recommends using good old-fashioned soap and water when it's available. Hand sanitizer also isn't effective at combating norovirus, C. difficile, and some parasites, but proper hand washing is, says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician in Akron, OH and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. While those bugs don't lead to coronavirus, they still have the potential to give you a bad case of vomiting and diarrhea if you happen to accidentally ingest them.

You should be washing your hands way more often. Wash your hands after you use the bathroom? Awesome! You're still not doing it enough. The CDC specifically says everyone should wash up in these situations:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the bathroom
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

The organization doesn't even address washing your hands before you touch your face, but that's important, too, says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Putting your dirty, unwashed hands on your face (specifically in your nose, mouth, and eyes) basically invites germs into your body, where they can make you sick, he explains.

Washing your hands a little is better than not washing your hands at all. Washing your hands correctly is one of the best ways to prevent illnesses like coronavirus COVID-19 from spreading, but "any amount of handwashing is better than none," says Dr. Watkins. So while it might not be optimal hand washing, don't forgo it entirely if you're in a rush.

OK, so what's the correct way to wash your hands?

Yes, you learned how to wash your hands as a kid and yes, it's not rocket science. But if you're like most people, you still don't know how to correctly wash your hands.

Here's the step-by-step guide to washing your hands, including how long you should wash your hands (and insight on where that "wash your hands song" came from), according to the CDC:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, which is about the length of time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

How much soap are we talking about here? "Enough soap to get a decent lather," says Willards. "This provides visual cues to move the bubbles around to all areas."

Sure, no one is perfect and, you're still probably not going to correctly wash your hands every single time, but given how helpless people are feeling right now about the seemingly imminent coronavirus COVID-19, washing your hands often and well is a great way to take back some control.

Now, go wash your hands. Seriously.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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