It’s one of those things that all mums say from time to time, like “eat your veg”, or “do you think this is a hotel?”
It’s also one of the best pieces of advice she could ever give you.
Because the simple act of washing and drying your hands properly is one of the most important and effective things you can do to help maintain good health, not only for yourself but for those around you.
According to researchers at the University of Boulder. Colorado, at any one time our hands are home to 3200 bugs and microbes from 150 sources. These sources include traces of human faeces, food particles, animal detritus such as hair, tics and excrement, germs from other people, pollutants, toxins and hundreds of other contaminants that we pick up every hour of every day.
We accumulate this unpleasant cocktail of bugs whenever we use the loo, touch an animal, blow our nose, change a nappy, handle money, prepare raw meat, shake hands or even touch a surface such as a door handle which other people have touched. On average, we come into contact with 300 surfaces every 30 minutes, exposing us to 840,000 germs. We collect germs continuously, from nearly everything we come into contact with, and we, in turn, help to spread them around by daubing them all over the things that we touch.
These nasty microbes can get into our system in many ways: when we touch our face, nose or eyes for instance, or eat food that we’ve touched with our germ ridden hands. Even worse, we can infect all those around us—especially children and the infirm—whenever we come into contact with them.
Once they’re in our system these germs and bacteria cause all sorts of illnesses, from the common cold to more serious infections such as meningitis, bronchiolitis, the flu, hepatitis A, and most types of infectious diarrhoea. You can get, and give, food poisoning, ecoli, ebola, MRSA and helminth infections, (a soil-born infection which which affects over 1.5 billion people). And that’s not an exhaustive list. In fact, 80 percent of all communicable diseases are transferred by touch.
Yet so much of this could be prevented by the simple act of washing and drying our hands properly.
Researchers in London estimate that if everyone routinely washed their hands correctly. illness could be reduced by 30 – 50 percent, and one million deaths a year could be prevented.
Effective hand washing is considered so important that it has its own Global Handwashing Day which is celebrated annually on October 15th.
It’s true. Your health is literally in your hands.
About hand washing
None of us think we’re dirty, and most of us believe that we already practice good hand hygiene, but sadly, study after study indicates that we don’t.
Recent research2 published in The Journal of Environmental Health showed that only 5 percent of people wash their hands long enough to rid themselves of germs after they go to the bathroom, and only two in three people use soap.
And those are the ones that make at least some effort to wash their hands!
A survey of of 100,000 people, carried out by a Initial Washroom Hygiene showed that a staggering 62 per cent of men and 40 percent of woman didn’t even bother to wash their hands at all after using the bathroom. Which means that most people are smearing whatever they did in the bathroom on everything afterwards. This is so gross, foul and dangerous it should be criminal.
So let’s just shake our heads in amazement and disgust, congratulate ourselves that we would never be so dirty and irresponsible, and move on to examine the proper way to wash our hands.
The universally accepted method of effective hand washing involves several elements: the water, the soap, the frequency, the technique and drying.
Water for hand-washing does not have to be as clean as drinking water, but it should not be contaminated with faecal bacteria. Using water that has been used for other purposes, such as cleaning dishes, is better than not washing at all, but clean is best, and in the developed world is usually easily available.
When wetting your hands prior to cleaning, and rinsing after cleaning, use clean running water, either warm or cold. Don’t use standing water from a plugged sink or bath if you can avoid it, as standing water or the container itself can become home to germs and bacteria. Save water by turning off the tap when not wetting or rinsing.
It’s a misconception that water needs to be hot to effectively cleanse our hands. Although it’s true that germs can be destroyed by heat, the temperature required is so high that you’d scald your hands if you tried to wash in it. It is the act of washing with soap that removes the bugs, and this is as effective in cold water as it is in hot. Comfortably warm water offers a slight advantage over cold because soap lathers better in warm water, and also we are more likely to wash our hands for longer—and therefore more effectively— in warmer water than in freezing, but otherwise hot or cold makes no difference.
Although some researchers claim that it is possible to wash your hands effectively using only water, most experts agree that soap is an important part of the process. More than 90 percent of germs are removed from the hands when you use soap.
Is the type of soap important?
Use liquid soap in preference to solid bar soap because:
• If bar soap sits in a puddle in a dish, for instance, the water itself can house germs.
• If the bar soap dries out it can develop cracks which can become home to dirt and germs.
• Bar soap may be used by many people and can itself become contaminated.
Should you use antibacterial soap?
There is no point. Research has shown that antibacterial soap offers no advantage over ordinary plain soap. In fact by using unnecessary antibacterial agents you may be contributing to the worrying development of resistant bacteria.
When to wash hands
This is a bit like asking when should I blow my nose? The answer is whenever you need to, but especially:
• When your hands are visibly soiled
• Before, during, and after preparing food
• Before eating food
• Before and after caring for someone who is sick
• Before and after treating a cut or wound
• After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
• After using the toilet
• After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
• After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
• After touching garbage
How to wash our hands
It’s important to make sure that we scrub all parts of our hands, including the backs of our hands, wrists, thumbs, between your fingers and under our fingernails thoroughly for long enough to remove germs.
According to The World Health Organisation (WHO) and other authorities, we need to scrub vigorously for at least 20 seconds to ensure a thorough cleanse.
And how long is that? Try singing Happy Birthday twice through at normal speed. If that’s a little cute for you you could hum the chorus from Sweet Caroline, or find your own timing guide. Whatever you do, don’t skimp on the time; it is important.
Here is the actual method, suggested by the WHO in a handy infographic:
• Wet hands thoroughly in warm or cold clean running water
• Apply enough soap to cover hands entirely
• Vigorously rub palms together
• With fingers interlaced, rub back of left hand with right palm. Repeat vice-versa
• Rub palms together with fingers interlaced
• Rub the backs of fingers against opposing palms, with fingers interlaced
• Clasp left thumb in right hand and rub rotationally. Repeat vice versa
• Rub the tips of fingers of right hand in the left palm, using a circular back and forwards motion. Repeat vice versa.
• Rinse hands in clean running water.
Although not mentioned in the WHO method, I would recommend that if your finger nails are of longish or particularly dirty you give these a good scrub with a clean nailbrush too.
So, now your hands are squeaky clean your work is done, right?
Because drying your hands properly is as important as washing them.
It is important to dry hands thoroughly after washing because some bacteria may remain on hands even after washing, and researchers have noted that these bacteria are more easily spread via wet hands than dry ones.
• Never just shake your hands then rub them on your clothes. This just aids the cross contamination of germs.
• Single use paper towels for drying are recommended by most experts, as they are more hygienic than other methods and conveniently quick to use. They do have a waste and environmental impact though.
• Fabric towels are not recommended unless they are only used once, as they may contain residual microbes which my transfer back to your hands, especially if the towel is used by other people too.
• Air dryers are OK, but a New Zealand study found that they took 45 seconds to properly dry your hands, which is too long for most people. Also, whilst you are waving your hands about underneath them you be spreading germs around even more.
• Airblades are much quicker and more effective than airdryers but are not yet widely available.
What about Sanitisers?
We encounter germs are all around us, and there may be occasions when we don’t have access to soap or water.
When this happens, alcohol based sanitisers make an acceptable emergency alternative, but only, according to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if the product contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Make sure you use enough product to cover the hand and rub well in.
So now you know.
To sum up then:
• Proper hand washing is your first line of defence against disease and illness.
• Wet your hands in clean running water either warm or cold.
• Scrub your hands with soap ( preferably liquid) for at least 20 seconds, using a technique like the WHO method outlined above.
• Rinse off using clean running water
• Dry thoroughly, preferably with a single use paper towel.
Washing your hands regularly at the appropriate times is one of the most simple and effective ways of protecting yourself against many unpleasant illnesses and preventing the spread of disease to others.
Do it often and do it well, and don’t have death on your hands.