Still not washing your hands properly? You could make people sick.

October 11, 2018 Swedish Blogger


  • Recent research shows that people are only washing their hands effectively 3% of the time.
  • The most common mistakes are not scrubbing for the recommended 20 seconds and drying hands on a towel that isn’t clean.
  • Proper handwashing hygiene can keep you healthy and prevent the spread of disease.

If you’re looking for ways to stay healthy this fall, you might want to spend more time at your sink. Proper hand hygiene is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading illness to others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compares handwashing to a “do-it-yourself” vaccine for its effectiveness at reducing the spread of disease – and most of us will agree that handwashing is a lot more pleasant than the needle jab of a traditional vaccine.

So why, as found by a recent study by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), are we not washing our hands correctly an astonishing 97% of the time?

How can we improve?

The USDA study shows that the most common handwashing mistakes by participants were not scrubbing for the recommended 20 seconds, and not using a clean towel to dry.

The CDC recommends the following five steps to good 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.

Who needs to improve?

Everyone who wants to avoid getting sick and making others sick.

According to a meta-analysis and other studies, proper handwashing reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31% (58% for people with weakened immune systems), and the number of those sickened with respiratory illnesses by 20%.

Food-related illnesses sicken 48 million Americans annually. This results in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Children, older adults, and those who are immunocompromised are at greatest risk.

What makes stopping germs so complicated?

Germs can be spread in a variety of ways: through coughing and sneezing, touching or kissing, during the preparation of raw meats and other foods, after using the toilet or changing diapers, or after touching an object someone else has already contaminated, such as a handrail or doorknob.

People are often unaware of how often they touch their eyes, noses, and mouths — all of which are common routes for germs to enter our bodies. And because we generally can’t see, smell, or feel germs, it is difficult to know exactly when they are being passed around.

What we do know, though, is that proper handwashing techniques will greatly reduce the overall transmission of germs. So, washing your hands regularly is one of the best things you can do for your disease prevention and good hygiene.

Where should we wash our hands?

The best place to wash your hands is somewhere with soap and clean, running water.

If not available, use hand-sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol-based). Apply the amount instructed on the label onto one palm, rub hands together, then rub thoroughly over both hands and all fingers until dry. Keep these hand-sanitizers out of reach of young children – they can be poisonous if ingested.

If hands are visibly dirty, sanitizers will not be as effective in eliminating germs. Also, they are not effective against all types of germs.

When should we wash our hands?

The CDC recommendations are as follows:

Before, during, and after:
  • Preparing food
  • Eating food
Before and after:
  • Caring for someone who is sick
  • Treating a cut or wound
  • Using the toilet
  • Changing diapers or cleaning up children who have used the toilet
  • Blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • Touching an animal, its food, or its waste
  • Handling pet food or pet treats
  • Touching garbage

Why should we wash our hands?

“Keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others,” states the CDC. “Many diseases and conditions are spread by not washing hands with soap and clean, running water.”

Proper handwashing also helps reduce antibiotic resistance, a growing issue with worldwide health implications.

Whether preparing dinner for your family, changing your child’s diaper, cleaning up after a pet, or heading about your daily business, proper hand hygiene is essential to help prevent the spread of germs.

Even the best handwashers can’t keep from catching the occasional common cold. If you or a family member need a same-day appointment for a common condition that you can’t treat home, like cold, flu, cough, or congestion, visit a Swedish Express Care clinic.

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

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