Clean Hands Make All the Difference!

Photo by Mike_tn via Flickr

Hand washing is perhaps the single-most effective way of preventing the spread of germs and illness. Often seen as simply a way to prevent common ailments like colds, hand washing is actually the first line of defense in fighting the spread of serious conditions including E. coli, Salmonella, hepatitis A and rotavirus.  While  it may sound overblown, proper hand hygiene really is critical to preserving public health.

When to Clean Hands

The Mayo Clinic recommends frequent hand washing, both before and after certain activities.

Food. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that fecal pathogens on fingertips, leftover from improper hygiene, are one of the major causes of foodborne illness. Proper hand washing before preparing food is essential, as is washing hands prior to eating. In a recent article, it was noted that 35% of Americans do not always wash their hands before lunch, despite the fact that germs are 400 times more likely to be on the average office desktop than a toilet (which is regularly cleaned).

Medical and Self Care. The best way to prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses is frequent hand washing, particularly after blowing, coughing or sneezing. Doctor’s even recommend hands be thoroughly washed before giving medicine, cleaning a wound or even putting in a contact lens. Remember that telephones, microwaves and keyboards may have as much as 10,000,000 million bacteria.

Bathroom. Of course, after using the restroom or diapering a baby, hands should be thoroughly washed.

Animals. Most parents know that after playing with petting zoo animals, children should wash their hands. What many overlook, however, are the germs found on the family pet. Diarrhea and fever-inducing bugs including campylobacter, Salmonella and toxoplasmosis (from litter boxes), as well as ringworm, are commonly transferred from pet to human, but all are eliminated with proper hand washing.

Household hazards. Hands should be thoroughly washed after handling anything that could be contaminated, such as cleaning products, chemicals and garbage.

How to Clean Hands

Soap. Proper hand washing, start to finish, will take a full 60 seconds.

(1)           Wet hands with warm water.
(2)           Use sufficient soap to cover hands.
(3)           Rub palms of hands, then backs of hands.
(4)           Rub fingers together interlaced
(5)           Curl fingers of both hands together to wash backs of fingers on palms of hands.
(6)           Curl palms around thumbs and clean while rotating.
(7)           Rub fingertips in circles on palms.
(8)           Rinse with warm water.
(9)           Dry with a single-use towel.
(10)    Use towel to turn off water

Hand Sanitizer. Proper use of an alcohol-based product will take 30 seconds.

(1)           Use enough sanitizer to cover both hands.
(2)           Rub palms of hands, then backs of hands.
(3)           Rub fingers together interlaced.
(4)           Curl fingers of both hands together to rub backs of fingers on palms of hands.
(5)           Curl palms around thumbs and clean while rotating.
(6)           Rub fingertips in circles on palms.
(7)           Air dry.

Are All Soaps Created Equal?

Absolutely not! Hand sanitizer with a high alcohol content (at least 60 percent) is the most effective at killing tough germs like E. coli. Soap that is cleanly dispensed, then used properly, is also highly effective; however, many soap dispensers are actually bacteria cesspools. In a recent study of elementary students and staff, it was shown that hands actually had more bacteria on them after washing with soap from refillable dispensers. Even dispensers filled with antibacterial soap can be contaminated with certain common strains of bacteria.

Surprisingly, antibacterial soap provides little benefit over regular soap when it comes to hygiene, and there is some evidence that it is relatively ineffective against some germs, including E. coli. The USDA recommends against using antibacterial soaps because of the possibility that overuse of these products may be contributing to antibiotic resistance. Additionally, one of the main ingredients in antibacterial soap, triclosan, has been linked to hormonal changes in animals.

Like sneezing and coughing into disposable tissues (and the crook of your arm), proper hand washing is essential to preventing the contraction and spread of common (and sometimes serious) diseases. With so many wipes, portable soaps and sanitizers available, responsible adults should always be able to practice proper hand hygiene.

Further Reading

Hand Hygiene (CDC)
Food Service Safety Facts
Safe Hands (USDA)