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How Long Should You Wash Your Hands? A Practical Guide to Hand Hygiene

At restaurants, hospitals, and nearly every public bathroom you enter, you are likely to see signs about washing your hands. We all know we are supposed to wash our hands, but do we really know how? In this article, Flo explains the rules and recommendations for proper handwashing, including how long you are supposed to wash your hands.

Simply put, you should wash your hands often. To make sure that you are getting rid of germs and bacteria, you can follow the recommended rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC makes the following recommendations for when to wash your hands (at a minimum):

  • Before, during, and after preparing food (especially raw foods)
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick (especially if they’re vomiting and/or have diarrhea)
  • Before and after treating a wound or injury (for yourself or others)
  • After using the restroom
  • After changing a diaper or assisting a child on the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, or assisting a child with blowing/wiping their nose
  • After touching an animal, animal food, or animal waste
  • After handling garbage

To reduce risk of the transmission and spread of the new coronavirus, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recommends washing your hands after sneezing, coughing, or blowing your nose; after visiting a public space (e.g., using public transportation or going to grocery stores or pharmacies); before, during, and after caring for a sick person; after touching surfaces outside of your home; and before and after eating.

COVID-19 and its spread has led many to wonder how many seconds the entire handwashing process should take. According to the CDC, you should wash your hands for at least 20–30 seconds to thoroughly remove germs. You can try singing a song that lasts about that long (like the Happy Birthday song) while washing your hands to ensure you’re doing it for long enough.

Health organizations recommend following a few steps to ensure that you are washing your hands properly. 

  1. Wet your hands with running water.
  2. Apply enough soap to cover/lather your wet hands.
  3. Scrub all the surfaces of your hands (backs of hands, between fingers, and under nails) for at least 20 seconds.
  4. Rinse your hands thoroughly with running water
  5. Dry your hands with a clean cloth or a single-use towel.

The World Health Organization says that water between 140 degrees Fahrenheit and 150 degrees Fahrenheit is hot enough to kill most viruses. This temperature is much too hot to wash your hands, but you can use these guidelines for laundry, dishes, etc. 

Boiling water can also kill pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Health authorities recommend a temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter when reheating water or food products.

In light of the public transmission of the new coronavirus, many people are looking for ways to wash potentially contaminated clothes or fabrics. Health authorities suggest washing high-risk clothing at a temperature of at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit and using a product that contains bleach.

For regular clothing, the dryer actually kills most bacteria. If your dryer is working properly, temperatures should reach between 135 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Dryers are also less likely than washing machines to have damp places where bacteria or fungi can grow.

The idea behind washing your hands with soap and water is that it removes germs rather than kills them. Hot water can kill germs, but the temperature needed to do so is too hot for handwashing. Soap helps break down and remove germs, so using soap and water for 20–30 seconds is the best way to remove germs, practice good hygiene, and ensure adequate protection.

If you’re following the recommendations of wetting your hands, washing for at least 20 seconds, and spending about 5 seconds rinsing your hands, the CDC predicts that it takes about 1.04 gallons of water to wash your hands. This calculation assumes that the faucet is new and efficient.

If you’re wondering if you should use antibacterial soap, the Mayo Clinic reports that it is not necessary or better to use antibacterial soap, as long as you’re following proper handwashing procedures. Antibacterial soap can actually cause later issues because bacteria can learn to develop resistance to the product.

Generally speaking, both handwashing and hand sanitizer are good ways to protect your health. If you’re using them appropriately and taking the right steps, both are effective at killing germs and pathogens. Hand sanitizer can often be more convenient because you can carry it with you when you are outside your home. 

There are a couple of things to remember when using hand sanitizer.

  • Make sure that the hand sanitizer you are using contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Although hand sanitizer (with enough alcohol) can kill the novel coronavirus, it does not kill all bacteria and viruses (like noroviruses and rotaviruses).
  • Using hand sanitizer excessively can kill healthy germ fighters on your skin.
  1. Apply the gel to the palm of one hand. Make sure you are using the amount recommended on the label.
  2. Rub your hands together.
  3. Spend about 20 seconds using the gel to cover the fronts and backs of your hands and in between your fingers.

Adequate handwashing can reduce risk of infection and the transmission of illness. Following the recommendations for handwashing is one of the best ways to protect yourself, the people you love, and the more vulnerable people in our communities. With the occasional use of hand sanitizer as well, hand hygiene is one of our quickest and simplest ways to maintain personal and public health. It’s a win–win for everyone.






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