Although it’s been drummed into us since we were children, research suggests that we’re still not as good at hand hygiene as we should be. In fact, it is thought that 1 in 5 of us do not wash our hands after using the bathroom, which can lead to the spread of harmful bacteria.
Throughout our history, hygiene has had varying levels of priority within our lives. However, having reached a point where cleanliness was “next to godliness”, more and more of us are shirking our handwashing responsibilities. With the rise of campaigns such as Global Handwashing Day, it’s clear that hand hygiene needs to have a greater level of priority in our lives - and that in order to prevent the spread of germs, we need to spread awareness first.
Why do we need to wash our hands?
Viruses and bacteria can be transferred from one person to another with just a single touch. And when we come into contact with so many dirty things on a daily basis, handwashing is one of the most important tools at our disposal to prevent the spread of harmful germs and bacteria.
Even before we fully understood the role bacteria played in infections, the benefits of handwashing had become clear. In the 1840s, an Austrian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis began using chlorine hand wash in his obstetrical clinic, reducing mortality rates to less than 1%. A decade later, the hygienic changes introduced by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War (amongst which was regular handwashing) lowered death rates by two-thirds.
Handwashing alone can reduce the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 23-40%, and can reduce respiratory illnesses, like colds, in the general population by 16-21%. Preventing these illnesses and improving our health not only benefits our personal lives, but also helps to reduce sickness and absenteeism in the workplace, as well as keeping children in school, rather than at home with a cold or flu.
However, despite the fact that we have come a long way in our hygiene since then, there is still vast room for improvement. It is thought that diarrhea, which can be contracted through drinking dirty water or eating food contaminated by dirty hands, kills 525,000 children under five around the world every year. Handwashing could therefore even be considered a moral imperative in the attempts to prevent the spread of life threatening diseases.
When should we wash our hands?
As a rule, the NHS recommends that we wash our hands under the following circumstances:
- After using the toilet
- After handling raw foods like chicken, meat and vegetables
- Before eating or handling ready to eat food
- After having contact with animals, including pets
Some experts argue that handwashing does not necessarily need to be limited to mealtimes and bathroom breaks. The consensus seems to be that it’s advisable to wash your hands whenever they “feel” dirty. Though this may be pretty subjective, there are countless times a day when we may be touching things that are probably carrying large amounts of bacteria.
For example, recent studies revealed that our smartphones, something that few of us are able to live without these days, are three times dirtier than a toilet seat. This, of course, doesn’t even take into account the amount of times that we may be handling door knobs, money, keys and other items that could be covered in bacteria.
Though washing your hands every five minutes is not exactly practical (nor is it particularly healthy), it is good to be aware of what you’re coming into contact with on a daily basis, and making sure that handwashing becomes a regular daily habit.
But what exactly is the best way to ensure we are washing our hands correctly?
Step 1: Actually remember to wash your hands!
This may seem a little obvious, but it is amazing how many of us still do not wash our hands on a regular basis, even after using the bathroom. Further to the study referenced earlier, 91% of participants stated that they wash their hands after using the toilet, despite tests showing that only 1 in 5 actually did.
There are many reasons why some people are lax about their handwashing habits. These can vary from an unhygienic looking environment, to a queue at the sink, to a general lack of understanding of the way that germs can spread in a bathroom.
Whether it’s setting a reminder on your phone or going old school and hanging a sign above your bathroom sink, it is important to understand and remember the benefits of handwashing- and that this applies not just to bathroom visits, but also other activities where bacteria or germs could be spread.
Step 2: Wash your hands correctly
There is almost little point in wash your hands regularly if you are not doing it correctly, as you could be missing entire areas of your hands where bacteria like to grow and transfer.
The popular notion that hot water will kill more germs has recently been debunked by scientists. This is bad news for the 70% of people that have tried to cut corners with hand hygiene by simply rinsing their hands rather than using soap, as this will still transfer harmful bacteria.
Though handwashing seems like it should be a very simple process, according to the NHS, there is a correct procedure that ensures the maximum amount of bacteria are killed:
- Wet your hands with water.
- Apply enough soap to ensure it covers both hands entirely.
- Rub your hands palm to palm.
- Rub the back of your left hand with your right palm with interlaced fingers. Then repeat with the other hand.
- Rub your palms together with your fingers interlaced.
- Rub the backs of your fingers against your palms with fingers interlocked.
- Clasp your left thumb with your right hand and rub in a circular motion. Repeat this with your left hand and right thumb.
- Rub the tips of your fingers in the other palm in rotation, going backwards and forwards. Repeat this with the other hand.
- Rinse your hands with water.
Though this may seem like an exhaustive list, according to experts, the entire process should only last the amount of time it would take to sing Happy Birthday twice through. For those hoping to practice their singing skills, handwashing could actually kill two birds with one stone!
Step 3: Don’t forget to dry off!
Almost as important as the handwashing itself is the process of drying your hands. Failing to do this can risk bacteria remaining on your hands and transferring to door handles, or other objects or people. In fact, because your hands are a damp and warm environment, not drying them could mean you leave the bathroom with more germs than when you entered.
In an age where we are used to the electric or “smart” method being more beneficial, the hand dryer is an outlier. Hand dryers, especially jet dryers, can spread water particles (and thus germs) in different directions at speeds of up to 370 mph. If you want to ensure your thorough hand washing process has not gone to waste, reaching for the paper towels is the far more hygienic method, even though it may seem a little old fashioned by modern standards.
Regardless of whether you’ve returned from a dog walk, finished preparing a delicious meal or spent a penny in a public bathroom, hand hygiene never goes out of fashion, and should be a daily priority for all of us.
Not only does good hand hygiene help to save lives in places such as hospitals, it can also prevent us from catching less serious diseases that cause us personal inconvenience, and can take us away from our jobs or hobbies.
By understanding the importance of handwashing and recognizing the benefits, we can aim to make hand hygiene a bigger priority in our daily routines. With enough practice, we’ll help it become a habit that - hopefully unlike unwanted bacteria - will stick around for good.
is a writer as well as a part of VR Sani-Co
, a family business providing washroom and sanitary services for businesses all over Kent and Sussex. She writes about women's health, both in private and in the workplace.