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Why & how to keep your hands clean

Wellness | February 1, 2020
Kiddos washing hands at kitchen sink
Five facts about handwashing plus a fun ritual to practice the finer points of this essential habit

You’ve heard it your whole life from your mom. And if you’re a parent, you probably say this a lot...every day:  “Wash your hands.”

OK, so it’s not a new or exciting topic, but it is a critical one.

“Handwashing is one of the most important things we can all do to stay healthy,” according to Pamela Standley, an infection preventionist at PeaceHealth. Throughout the day, all of us unknowingly pick up microbes — bacteria and germs — that can make us sick. Then without noticing, we use those same seemingly innocent (but germ-laden) hands to rub our eyes or wipe our mouth, then bingo…the bugs have their chance to sneak in and cause problems.

Fortunately, you can beat at least some of the bugs at their game with these five tips:

 1. Wash with soap and water:

  • Before, during or after cooking and/or eating.
  • After using the toilet or changing a diaper.
  • After touching animals and pet toys, and after cleaning up their “business.”
  • After touching garbage.
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick.
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound.
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
  • When your hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

“Given that most of us eat and use the restroom a few times a day, we can expect to typically wash our hands at least six or seven times a day,” Standley said.  If you have young children, double that. And if you work or volunteer in food service, day care, healthcare or related industries, multiply that 10 or 20 times.

Diaper changes, multiple meals or snack times, and the challenge of keeping kids from putting things in their mouths, it’s no wonder little ones get sick more often. And if they spend much time with others their age, they’re exposed to even more busy, germy hands.

Plus, washing tiny hands can be tricky.  “Young children — toddlers and preschoolers — learn through their senses: touching, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling. Because germs can’t be felt, seen, heard, tasted or smelled, you have to get creative. Making germs ‘tangible’ through play is a great way to teach the importance of effective handwashing,” said Standley. Try the following tips to help your little ones understand and remember this bug-busting lesson:

  • Sing handwashing songs
  • Draw and color pictures
  • Build or create crafts
  • Tell stories or read books about washing and germs

2. Use regular soap and warm (not hot) water.

“Antibacterial soap is no better than any other soaps. And bar soap is just as good as liquid,” said Standley. But using soap DOES matter. “Water by itself is not as effective at cleaning.” Hot water that’s comfortable enough to wash in still isn’t hot enough to kill the germs. PLUS, it dries out your skin.

Warm soapy water is more effective than cold soapy water at removing the natural oils that hold the bacteria and soil on our hands, but the water temperature doesn’t kill germs. If you’re washing frequently, use cool/warm water.

Keep in mind that healthy skin keeps infection out. Compromised skin — skin with cuts, sores or other openings — is vulnerable. Dry, cracked skin makes it especially easy for pathogenic organisms — potentially bad bugs — to take hold and wreak havoc.

Applying an appropriate moisturizer regularly — even on a schedule — is the key to maintaining healthy skin when you’re washing frequently and when the weather or environment dries it out.

An effective lotion will put moisture back into your skin to maintain its flexibility and help prevent cracking.  A good one will replace the natural oils removed by washing. Look for these three general ingredients in the lotion you choose: 

  • Emollients, which soften the skin (example: lanolin).
  • Humectants, which attract and retain moisture (examples:  honey or aloe vera).
  • Skin nutrients, which keep your skin healthy from the inside out (examples: vitamin C, E and A). Note: What you eat is also important for good skin health — not just what you rub in from the outside.

3. Dry hands well after washing.  

Why? “Germs pass more easily from wet skin than from dry so it’s important to dry well,” said Standley.

In public restrooms, paper towels or rapid dryers that do not require hand rubbing are suitable options. Rubbing hands together under an electric dryer can bring bacteria that live within the skin to the surface. If rapid dryers are not available use paper towels.

Some bacteria can remain on the hands even after washing, and they can spread to cloth towels during the drying step. To avoid this, make sure your hands are washed with soap and warm water for 20 seconds and thoroughly rinsed prior to drying.

Hand towels should be changed every one to two days, since they might be drying hands that aren’t completely clean.

4. Practice “hands-off” habits.

Experts say that on average, each of us touches some part of our face about 25 times per hour. Per hour, people! It’s so easy to do it without thinking.

Remind yourself periodically to keep your hands clear of your face. When you need to wipe your eyes or rub your nose, grab a tissue first.

And, of course, you’re probably well aware of the practice of coughing or sneezing into your upper arm or the crook of your elbow.  “Years ago, people were told to cover their coughs or sneezes with their hands. That practice actually spread more germs. Coughing or sneezing directly into a hand then touching food, money or other people is clearly a recipe for contagion. The real wonder is that people failed for so many years to spot this simple truth,” said Standley. 

Considering a typical sneeze can travel 100 mph and spew countless germs into the air, your habit of corralling your sneezes goes a long way to keeping everyone around you a little healthier.

5. Remember to clean your cell phone, TV remote, etc., regularly. 

It might cross your mind now and then, but few of us want to think about all of the germs that can be found on items that our households touch many times a day — sometimes with hands that are clean and sometimes not-so-clean. Think: fridge or other door handles, faucets, keys, purse, etc.

Then there are the surfaces in public we share with hundreds or thousands of strangers every day. Think: gas pumps, grocery cart handles, keypad buttons at store checkouts, money, stair rails and so on.

One study found that viruses can survive much longer on objects like dollar bills than originally thought, particularly when found in high concentrations like those from a single sneeze.

Schedule time each week — or even each day — to sanitize those items in your home or office. There are many different types of disinfectants or methods of sanitizing, from rubbing alcohol and bleach to vinegar, tea tree oil and steam-cleaning, plus many more.  Choose the type that best fits your home and health needs. To clean a cellphone or other electronic device, use a wipe or product as recommended by the company that made it.

When you’re out and about, carry a small container of hand sanitizer or wipes to use when you can’t wash with water. If a store offers towelettes at the entrance, go ahead and grab one to wipe down your cart handle. And stash a pack of wipes and/or a bottle of sanitizer in your vehicle or diaper bag to use in between soap-and-water washes.

While the advice to keep our hands clean has been handed down for generations, it is proven to help people stay healthier. And that will never get old.

Reference Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010, updated 2011). Keeping hands clean. Available online:; Littau, C.A., Thompson, Kirsten, M. (2011) Keep consumer hand lotions at home. American Nurse Today at;;

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