It's National Handwashing Awareness Week. Clean hands save lives.




In this article: 

  • December 1 through 7 is National Handwashing Awareness Week.

  • Scientific studies show that you need to scrub for 20 seconds to remove harmful germs and chemicals from your hands.

  • Proper handwashing hygiene is one of the best ways to keep you and your family from getting sick.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that good hand hygiene is an important weapon in defending ourselves and others against serious illness. And during National Handwashing Awareness Week, which is December 1 through December 7, it's a good time to reinforce the importance of handwashing, why it matters and how to do it properly.     

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). many diseases are spread by not washing hands with soap and clean, running water. If soap and water aren't available, says the CDC, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can help you avoid spreading germs to others. And in case you're wondering, yes, there's plenty of evidence to support the importance of proper handwashing and what we know about why and how it works! 

How harmful germs spread

Harmful germs can spread from other people or surfaces when you touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands; prepare or eat foods or drinks with unwashed hands; touch contaminated surfaces; or blow your nose, cough or sneeze into your hands and then touch other people or common objects. 

"This something I really try to reinforce with my patients, especially people with kids or who are around kids," says Lindsey Skinner, FNP, a nurse practitioner at Swedish Primary Care, Capitol Hill. "Be sure to wash your hands every time you sneeze or cough. It may seem like a small thing, but it goes a long way in stopping the spread of harmful germs. If you have to sneeze or cough, and aren't near a sink, sneeze into the crook of your elbow, so you can minimize contaminating your hands, and be sure you're carrying hand sanitizer. Wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you can get to soap and water." 

So, is there a right way to wash our hands? 

Yes! CDC recommends the following five steps a proper handwashing hygiene:

  • Wet: Use clean, running water (warm or cold), then turn off the water, and apply soap.
  • Lather: Rub hands together to spread around soap; don’t miss backs of hands, between fingers, and under nails.
  • Scrub: For 20 seconds or more. You can hum “Happy Birthday” twice, or the ABC song once, to help measure time.
  • Rinse: Under clean, running water.
  • Dry: Use a clean towel (not the damp one used to wipe down your kitchen counters!) or simply air dry.

But I'm not near a running water and don't have soap. 

The CDC recommends using hand sanitizer if soap and water aren't readily available. Be sure your sanitizer is at least 60% alcohol; you can tell by reading the label. Just keep in mind that sanitizers don't get rid of all types of germs; may not be as effective on visibly dirty or greasy hands; and may not remove harmful chemicals like pesticides or heavy metals. Apply the amount instructed on the label onto one palm, rub hands together, then rub thoroughly over both hands and all fingers until dry. Be sure to keep hand-sanitizers out of reach of young children – they can be poisonous if ingested.

Timing is everything: when should we wash our hands?

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before and after eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

Why should we wash our hands?

“Keeping our hands clean is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others that can make them sick. Handwashing also helps reduce antibiotic resistant infections, which kill more than 35,000 people each year ,” says Lindsey Skinner. "It's a relatively easy way we can protect ourselves and others. Taking the time was wash our hands properly is a simple action that can make a big impact on health in our families and communities."  

Find a doctor

Swedish understands that even the best handwashers sometimes get sick!  Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish ExpressCare Virtual connects you face-to-face with a practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Find out the latest updates on how we’re handling COVID-19.

Additional resources

Handwashing - Clean Hands Save Lives from the CDC

Five essential guidelines to control infection 

Safety isn’t just our policy, it’s our culture 

Keep kids healthy, safe with recommended vaccines 


This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.



About the Author

Our job is to provide you with the resources to keep you healthy, and as such the Swedish Primary Care team offers a mix of clinical advice based on decades of experience, tips and health hacks to prevent illnesses, and recommendations for specialty care services when needed.

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