Better handwashing = better defense against pathogens.
When it comes to preventing infectious diseases like COVID-19 (caused by the novel coronavirus), the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that hand hygiene is one of the most important factors.
COVID-19 and other respiratory infections are spread through tiny droplets that are emitted when you sneeze, cough, or talk. If someone coughs into their hand, or touches a contaminated surface, the virus can survive on the hands and be passed on to infect others (or themselves, if they touch their mouth, nose, or eyes). Learn more about how COVID-19 spreads in humans here.
That’s where handwashing comes in: To eliminate some of those pathogens from the hand. Unfortunately, even the most committed hand-washers make some common mistakes at the sink that could put their health—or the health of those in their community—at risk.
MISTAKE: Not washing your hands for long enough
Simply letting soap touch your hands does not instantly banish all the germs on your hands. It takes time: The longer you lather, the more germs you knock out.
Most experts agree that handwashing for at least 20 seconds is enough time to significantly reduce the number of germs on your hand to a safe amount. Make sure you wash after using the bathroom, before eating or preparing food, after coughing or sneezing, after being out in public, and after caring for someone else who is sick.
MISTAKE: Forgetting to wash easy-to-miss spots
If you only wash your palms, the rest of your hands can still transmit disease. One of the reasons you should wash for at least 20 seconds is that it gives you enough time to hit all these oft-forgotten nooks and crannies:
The back of your hands
Between the fingers
And under the fingernails (you might need a special brush for that).
MISTAKE: Not using soap
When in a hurry, some people just opt for a sud-free rinse. Sure, that’s probably better than nothing, but soap has substances known as surfactants that actually help loosen up a germ’s grip on your skin. This, combined with the friction of your rubbing, helps get those germs off your hands and down the drain.
MISTAKE: Not drying your hands afterwards
Imagine dropping a piece of food on the floor. When you pick it up, it’s often littered with dust and dog hair. If it’s a piece of dry toast, it probably won’t pick up too much crud, but if you drop toast that’s slathered with jelly, the amount of junk that sticks to the jelly is shocking.
Similarly, wet hands are more likely to attract pathogens than dry hands. That’s why it’s important to dry off your hands with a towel—a clean towel. If that’s not possible (and let’s face it, we’ve all been in public bathrooms that were out of paper towels), take extra caution not to touch anything while your hands air-dry.
MISTAKE: Over-relying on hand sanitizer
There’s something about the look and smell of hand sanitizer that feels so effective, but it’s important to remember that hand sanitizer is actually less effective than good ol’ soap and water. Hand sanitizer should only be used when soap and water aren’t accessible, since sanitizers only remove some, not all, pathogens. Learn more about when + how to use hand sanitizers here.
If you can correct these common mistakes, you’ll have a better chance at reducing the spread of infections like COVID-19. Learn more prevention tips against COVID-19 here.
Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2020. (Accessed on March 18, 2020 at https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses.)
Show me the science - when & how to use hand sanitizer in community settings. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020. (Accessed on March 18, 2020 at https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html.)
Show me the science - why wash your hands? Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018. (Accessed on March 18, 2020 at https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/why-handwashing.html.)