You're probably washing your hands wrong and don't even know it, experts say
It's a skill you probably learned as a toddler, but most people in the USA still haven't mastered it: washing your hands.
Multiple studies show people don't wash their hands as much as they should – and when they do, they often do it ineffectively. Many people don't see the problem.
“People think that they do wash their hands properly ... they have this concept of, ‘Yes, I’ve done it correctly,’ " Mindy Brashears, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s deputy under secretary for food safety, told USA TODAY.
That misconception concerns experts who worry that widespread bad hand-washing techniques could allow diseases such as the new coronavirus COVID-19 to spread more easily.
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Why should I wash my hands?
When done correctly, hand-washing prevents the spread of germs, helping keep you and others healthy.
A study published in December suggests the worldwide spread of disease could be significantly lowered if more people traveling through 10 key airports would wash their hands correctly.
The majority of travelers constantly contaminate the things they touch with the germs they carry on their hands, study co-author Christos Nicolaides, a fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said in a news release.
“If we go now to any airport in the world, on average, we find that 1 out of 5 people will have clean hands," Nicolaides told USA TODAY.
Raising the number of travelers to 3 in 5 could slow the global spread of disease by almost 70%, the study suggests.
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In the face of a possible coronavirus pandemic spreading primarily through travel, good hand-washing habits should be taken more seriously, experts said.
“If people would just wash their hands, it would go a long way to preventing ... the spread of illnesses,” Brashears said.
Am I washing my hands correctly?
Statistically, probably not.
Brashears cited USDA studies about hand-washing during food prep involving raw meat – when most people know they should wash their hands.
People were recorded while they prepped the food, and researchers reviewed the footage to see whether people effectively washed their hands.
Nearly everyone did it wrong.
“I have been very stunned at the data,” Brashears said.
People didn't wash long enough; they forgot the soap sometimes; they accidentally cross-contaminated food.
That's one of the reasons Brashears has made hand-washing education a priority: “We don’t want to wait for the next catastrophic event.”
How should I wash my hands?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a four-step process:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water. To save water, turn off the tap while applying soap.
- For at least 20 seconds, scrub your hands. That's about the amount of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice.
- Rinse your hands well.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel.
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What are some common hand-washing myths?
Some hand-washing mistakes might seem obviously wrong, but people do them all the time, according to Brashear. For example, you need both soap and water to effectively wash your hands. Not just water. And not just soap.
Other misconceptions are less obvious.
The CDC says hot water doesn't kill any more germs and can irritate your hands, so the agency recommends cold or warm water.
The agency says there's no measurable benefit to antibacterial soaps.
Even careful hand-washers may miss this one: It's not just your palms and fingers that need to be washed – germs can hide under your nails in high concentrations, so be sure to scrub there, the CDC says.
Does hand sanitizer work?
Though the CDC prefers soap and water because they are effective at reducing all germs, hand sanitizers are a good substitute if you don't have another option.
Sanitizers work best in clinical settings and are less effective against heavily soiled or greasy hands, the CDC says.