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6 Mistakes That Could Be Sabotaging Your Hand-Washing

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Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH - Blogs
By Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPHBoard-certified internistApril 28, 2020
From the WebMD Archives

There’s no proven treatment for COVID-19. So, at this moment, your best bet for surviving the global pandemic is prevention. Hand-washing is one critical step in your control along with other measures including physical distancing, wearing a face mask and cleaning high-touch surfaces.

We’ve known for a long time how important hand-washing is. It reduces the risk of other respiratory illnesses like the common cold by about 20%. In addition, it stops the spread of diarrhea related illnesses.

However, hand-washing effectively is not that easy. Even in medical settings, clinicians clean their hands less than half the times they should. Here are the most common mistakes that may be sabotaging your hand-washing:

You don’t wash your hands often enough.  All day long, there are many touchpoints where your hands and fingers could be exposed to germs including the coronavirus. Once on your fingers, the microbes can transfer to your body easily if you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Hand-washing is the best way to lift and rinse them away. Hand sanitizer is a good option when soap and water aren’t convenient, but it won’t clean as well.

Wash your hands:

  • After being in a public place where you might have touched items like a shopping cart, countertops, or door handles
  • After coughing or sneezing
  • Before touching your face especially your eyes, nose, mouth
  • Before and after eating food and prepping meals
  • After going to the bathroom
  • After touching your pet or handling their food and waste
  • Before and after any caretaker work including changing a baby’s diaper
  • After handling the trash

You need more soap to lather up. Wet your hands with warm or cold water, and then be generous with soap. People tend to wash more thoroughly when they use soap. A nickel to quarter size amount of liquid soap is ideal (you don’t need an antibacterial soap - that doesn’t add anything helpful). Lather up well to create friction that lifts the dirt, grease, and microbes.

You don’t scrub your entire hand. Don’t forget to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and especially under your nails. I recommend keeping your nails cut short to reduce the gunk that can get trapped under your nails.

You don’t wash long enough. You’ll need to scrub for about 20 seconds to get the germs off. The “Happy Birthday” song (sung twice) is a common measurement, but since the pandemic started people have been getting creative with their hand-washing tunes – one teen in the UK started a website called Wash Your Lyrics that will create a 13 step hand-washing poster paired with the lyrics of your favorite song.

You need to rinse your hands more thoroughly. After all the scrubbing, you need to rinse well with clear running water to remove all the stuff you lifted off your hands. Getting rid of all the soap will also lessen any irritation to your skin.

You skip drying your hands. Germs transfer more easily to and from wet hands, so take the time to dry your hands with a clean towel. Wash cloth hand towels in your home often. And if you’re in a public place, paper towels are better than an electric dryer.

It’s amazing how complicated  hand-washing can be, but it’s also incredible how life saving this simple task can be. Stay safe everyone!


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About the Author
Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and a WebMD Medical Editor. She is on the team that makes sure all WebMD content is medically correct, current and understandable. She sees patients at the Women’s Wellness Clinic at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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