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Hand Washing

As we go through the day, our hands pick up germs from many different sources. Even surfaces and object that seem clean can carry germs such as bacteria, viruses or fungi. The influenza virus, for example, can be infective for between 2 and 8 hours on hard surfaces such as desks and doorknobs; some bacteria can survive for weeks or months.

When we eat or touch our eyes or nose, those germs can enter our bodies and can make us sick. Often these germs are more annoying than serious. But they can also include dangerous and deadly infections. 

Handwashing is the most important thing you can do to help prevent common illnesses like colds, flu, and gastroenteritis. Proper handwashing with soap and warm water is the best way to remove bacteria and viruses from the hands, especially if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when water is not available. Cleaning with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can prevent some infections, but not as many as handwashing with soap and warm water. 

Using soap and w​ater 

Liquid, foaming and bar soap are all effective for cleaning your hands, if used properly. The type of soap is not as important as the right technique. It is the soap combined with the scrubbing action that helps loosen and remove germs from your skin. The running water washes them away. Antibacterial soap is not necessary. As long as you wash your hands properly, antibacterial soap does not work any better than regular soap. 

How to wash your hands pro​perly 

Washing your hands will help only if it is done properly. Here is what to do:

  1. Wet your hands thoroughly with warm water.
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  1. Apply enough liquid, foam or clean bar soap to cover the entire surface of the hand.
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  1. With your hands away from the water, rub your hands vigorously together.
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  1. Scrub all surfaces.
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  1. Make sure to get between the fingers and under the fingernails.
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  1. Wash the wrists and lower arms, if necessary.
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  1. Continue for at least 15 seconds or about the length of time it takes to hum a short song such as Happy Birthday twice. It is the soap combined with the scrubbing action that helps dislodge and remove germs.
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  1. Rinse well, removing all soap residue.
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  1. Dry your hands on a clean towel or paper towel.
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  1. Use the towel to turn the tap off.
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When to wash your hands 

Always wash your hands in these situations: 

  • when your hands are dirty, especially if you can see dirt 
  • before, during and after you prepare food • before you eat, feed a child or give medication
  • after you use the bathroom 
  • after you change your child’s diaper or help them use the bathroom 
  • after you touch blood or other body fluids such as saliva or vomit 
  • after sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose 
  • after you touch animals or pick up their waste 
  • after you handle garbage 
  • more often when someone in your home is sick 

Teaching children to wash their hands 

Even young children can learn to wash their hands properly. Some tips: 

  • Start teaching your child when they are young. Handwashing should be an essential part of going to the bathroom right from the start. Wash your hands after changing your child’s diaper, and if your baby touched the diaper or the diaper area, wash their hands too. When your child uses the potty, even if you wipe them off, both of you should wash your hands afterwards. 
  • Lead by example. Always wash your hands using the correct technique. 
  • Make it easy for your child. Have a stable stool in front of the sink for your child to stand on, and make sure the soap and towels are within your child’s reach. Bar soap can be slippery and hard to handle, so you may want to use liquid or foam soap instead. 
  • Explain why. Tell your child that germs can get on their hands when they play with animals or go to the bathroom, even if their hands look clean. Germs can make them sick, so it is important to wash them off, especially before eating. 
  • Keep your child safe. To avoid scalds, turn on the water and adjust the temperature for your child until they are old enough to do it themselves. 
  • Get backup. Find out if your child’s school or daycare centre teaches proper handwashing. Check to make sure handwashing and infection control are priorities. 

Use hand sanitizer when water is not readily available 

As long as hands are not wet, greasy or visibly dirty, alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be used. Hand sanitizers work because the alcohol in them denatures or “cooks” the proteins in the germs. 

To use hand sanitizer, simply place a thumbnail-sized amount on your hands and rub for about 15 seconds or until your hands are dry. If your hands are dry before then, you may not have used enough. 

Hand sanitizer is not as harsh on your hands and it is often more convenient. However hand sanitizer should not replace handwashing with soap and water, especially after a visit to the bathroom. Send older children to school with a small bottle of hand sanitizer in their bags so they can clean their hands when they need to, when they do not have access to water and soap. 

Read the label to make sure the hand sanitizer you buy contains 60% to 95% ethyl alcohol (ethanol) or isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol). Products with less than 60% alcohol do not kill germs. Products with more than 95% alcohol do not work as well, because there needs to be some water present for proteins to deteriorate. 

Preca​utions when using hand sanitizer: 

  • Do not leave hand sanitizer where small children might be able to drink it. Hand sanitizer contains 50% more alcohol by volume than most brands of vodka. 
  • Always supervise small children when using hand sanitizer. 
  • Do not put your hands near a spark, flame or source of static electricity while they are still wet with hand sanitizer, because the alcohol can catch fire and cause injury. Rub your hands together until they are completely dry. 

 Key​ point 

  • The best way to protect yourself and your child from germs is proper handwashing. 
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds, scrub every surface and rinse off all trace of soap 
  • When you do not have access to water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Make sure it contains between 60% and 95% alcohol. Rub your hands with the sanitizer until they become dry.​

Reviewed by:

Shawna Silver, MD, FRCPC, FAAP, PEng​​​


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