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Why & how to keep your hands clean

| Wellness | Healthy You

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 likely heard it your whole life, and if you’re a parent, you probably say it a lot: “Wash your hands.”

It may seem like small request, but it is a critical one, particularly during a pandemic and cold or flu season.

“Handwashing is one of the most important things we can all do to stay healthy,” according to Catherine Kroll, director of infection prevention 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 with these five tips:

1. Wash with soap and water:

  • Before and after removing your face mask. 
  • 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,” Kroll says.  If you have young children, double that. And if you work or volunteer in healthcare, food service, daycare, schools 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. 

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,” says Kroll. 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,” says Kroll. 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 (for 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,” says Kroll.

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.

Cloth towels should be changed daily, since they can harbor residual germs wiped from your hands.

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! 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,” notes Kroll. 

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. 

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. Think: gas pumps, grocery cart handles, keypad buttons at store checkouts, money, stair rails and so on.

Schedule time regularly to sanitize those high-touch items in your home or workspace. 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 in public, carry hand sanitizer or wipes to use when you can’t wash with water. If a store offers towelettes at the entrance, use 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. Be sure the hand sanitizer has at least 60% alcohol. 

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.

Note:  The video below was taped BEFORE the COVID-19 pandemic.