Hand washing and hand hygiene have become big news since the COVID-19 pandemic—and with good reason! It’s been known since the mid-1800s that hand washing is important for preventing the spread of germs and reducing the rates of infection from communicable diseases. But it may surprise you to know that medical professionals in the United States didn't have any formal hand hygiene guidelines until the 1980s!

To celebrate National Hand Washing Awareness Week (held every year from December 6 to 12), keep reading for additional information about this simple, but life-saving, technique.

5 Things to Know About Hand Washing

1. Wash Your Hands Often

Washing your hands is not just limited to after using the bathroom. You also want to wash your hands:

  • Before using the bathroom (especially if you've been out in public areas)
  • Before and after preparing or eating food
  • Before and after taking care of someone who is sick
  • Before and after caring for a wound, applying cosmetics, or using contact lenses
  • After blowing your nose, sneezing, or coughing
  • After touching an animal
  • After handling garbage
  • After touching a heavily used surface in public areas such as a door knob, elevator button or light switch
  • After arriving home
  • For medical professionals: before and after leaving a patient's room, before and after performing any medical procedures, and before and after donning or doffing personal protective equipment (PPE)

2. Use The Right Technique

Here are the simple steps to teach your family:

  1. Get your hands wet with water, ideally warm.
  2. Lather your hands with about a quarter-sized amount of soap and scrub all parts of your hands, thumbs, and fingers for 20 seconds.
  3. Rinse off the soap completely with water.
  4. Dry your hands and use a paper towel to turn off the faucet.

Yes, it is important to wash your hands for the full 20 seconds. This gets the most amount of germs, viruses, and bacteria off your skin, which can prevent you or someone else from getting sick. Other than singing the Happy Birthday song two times through, you can also try 20 seconds worth of:

  • Singing another favorite song
  • Saying a positive affirmation or mantra out loud or in your head
  • Counting to 20 out loud or in your head

Treat your hand washing as an opportunity to be fully present in the moment!

3. Don't Miss Important Areas On Your Hands and Fingers!

When washing your hands, remember to clean:

  • Your thumbs
  • Between your fingers
  • Beneath your fingernails
  • Back of your hands
  • Your palms
  • Your wrists

4. Dry With Paper Towels When Possible

Did you know that the air dryers commonly found in public restrooms can spread fecal matter and other germs into the air? Additional research suggests that using paper towels is a more effective and efficient way to dry your hands compared to air-drying. Aside from preventing airborne spread, paper towels may work better because the additional scrubbing action helps remove more germs.

So, use towels when possible (and at home, regularly replace kitchen or bathroom towels).

5. Hand Washing Is Preferable to Hand Sanitizer

Yes, hand washing is best. According to the CDC, regular hand washing with soap and water is the best way to get your hands clean and prevent the spread of infections. If it's not possible to wash your hands right away, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. But wash your hands when possible, especially if they are visibly soiled.

Contact SIU Medicine at 800.342.5748 for more support on staying healthy throughout the upcoming cold and flu season.

Topics: COVID-19, Hand Washing