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In 2020, the world was suddenly given a huge reminder of the importance of hand hygiene. When a new virus was sweeping the world in a pandemic that changed everything, many people were shocked to learn that the virus itself could be destroyed quickly and easily using something cheap, widely available, and which we all already have in our homes; soap. We already knew that hand washing with soap was useful in preventing common colds, but with the knowledge that soap destroyed the very part of the virus that makes it different and deadly (the ‘spike protein’), people were bombarded with advice on hand washing. While it was usually the job of parents everywhere to constantly remind their children to wash their hands, suddenly, we were all doing it. Reminders appeared on posters, signs, and on television, radio, and social media. Good hand washing with soap remains a more effective way to cleanse the hands than even the best alcohol-based hand sanitizers. So are you doing it right? Let’s take a look at hand washing, how to do it properly and how often we need to do it.


Why Does Hand Washing Matter?

Bacteria on surfaces we touch making correct hand washing important

Avoiding bacterial infections and viruses requires avoiding other people. This simply is not something that we can do long-term. While we can avoid crowds and maintain social distance between ourselves and our fellow humans, we cannot avoid everyone forever. So we have to mitigate the risks of infection as best we can. This means that we may come into contact with particles that contain bacteria and viruses that could potentially make us sick. Particles land on surfaces, we touch those surfaces, and then these particles make it to the mouth, nose, or eyes where they can enter the body and replicate, causing illness. This is how colds, flu, and other viral conditions spread. However, regular hand washing (and washing with the right technique) can eliminate these particles before they have a chance to infect us. This also means that we are not passing them on via the surfaces we touch. If everyone was washing their hands well, the number of potentially infection-causing microbes on the surfaces around us would be much lower.


The 4 Elements of Good Hand Hygiene

Chef washing hands before preparing food

Hand washing doesn’t have to be complicated. However, there are four simple things to bear in mind when you go about your daily life. Making hand washing, a habit is the best way to protect yourself from infection as you go about your daily life. This shouldn’t be something you are constantly thinking about; instead, it should be something you do as a matter, of course, each day.

Soap – Soap is incredible stuff. It has the power to destroy so many of the bacteria and viruses that can make us unwell. It doesn’t even have to be special soap; any soap will do. The reason it can do this comes down to the way the molecules are structured. A single molecule of soap looks a little like a tadpole. The head bonds with water, and the tail repels water and bonds with fatty, oily substances. When you lather soap with water, these molecules lift dirt, oils, and particles off the skin. But there’s more; the soap also destroys the ‘lipid layer’ of many viruses and bacteria. This lipid layer contains important proteins that help the viruses and bacteria enter or infect human cells. As the tail ends of the soap molecules work to repel water and bond to fats, they enter this lipid layer and literally wedge themselves there until they have pried the microbe or virus apart. The action of the soap dissolves the lipid layer and destroys the virus or bacteria so that it is useless and has no power to infect any longer. So, choose whatever soap you like best, lather it up well, and if your hands are particularly dirty, or you have been touching surfaces that many people may have been touching, then adding more soap and lathering up twice can get rid of any lingering particles.

Water – Use plenty of water. Hot water will help to remove oils and stubborn dirt and can help you get a good lather from the soap you use, but cold water will also work. It is easiest to use running water from a tap, but if you are out and cannot access running water, you can use a basin of water or pour it from a bottle. The important thing is to have a good washing and rinsing technique.

Technique – When it comes to hand washing, it’s all about technique. While you might read different variations of the proper hand washing technique, there are certain elements that are common to all hand washing techniques. 

  1. First, wet the hands under a running tap (if available) with warm or cold water. 
  2. Apply the soap to wet hands; you can use a bar of soap by slathering it between your hands until your hands are coated, or you can apply one or two pumps of liquid soap (but ensure it doesn’t run off your hands and disappear down the plughole!). 
  3. Scrub your hands well by rubbing them together. Make sure you scrub the fronts or backs of the hands, the wrists, between the fingers, and underneath the fingernails. The crucial thing is the duration of your hand washing; you should continue for a minimum of 20 seconds. You can count slowly to twenty, or if it helps (especially when teaching young children), you can sing happy birthday twice, which takes about 20 seconds. 
  4. Rinsing the hands well is important; wash away all traces of soap from all parts of the hands and wrists under running water, preferably warm. 
  5. Don’t forget to dry your hands well; wet hands will quickly pick up more dirt. Focus on drying between the fingers so that they are totally dry. Use a clean towel that has not been used by anyone else or a disposable paper towel. Alternatively, let your hands air dry completely before touching anything.

Frequency – One of the major questions is how often should we each be washing our hands, and the answer depends on what you are doing through the course of your day. Washing at the right times, when you are most likely to have picked up germs, is a huge part of staying healthy. Times we should be washing our hands include:

  1. Before and after preparing or eating food
  2. After using the toilet
  3. Before and after personal care for a child, e.g., changing diapers.
  4. Before and after touching animals, feeding, providing care
  5. After handling waste or bins
  6. Before and after administering first aid
  7. Before and after caring for those who are ill

Hand washing is crucial to public health and can genuinely reduce the infectious agents you are exposed to, as well as reducing the risk of sickness from food poisoning, etc. Teaching children good hand washing techniques and making an effort to provide hand washing facilities to the public and in private places such as workplaces, healthcare facilities, educational spaces, and leisure facilities can have a positive impact on the rates of sickness in the local community.