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We all know we should wash our hands, and most of us say we do. Research shows we're either lying or just not sure how to wash our hands properly. Want to stay healthy this flu season? Here's a handwashing refresher course.

We all know we should wash our hands, and when asked, research reveals, 94 percent of us will claim that we always do after using the restroom. Research also shows that we lie — only five percent of the population actually washes their hands correctly after going to the toilet. Among those who didn't, most just didn't wash their hands long enough. Others, however, didn't use soap or failed to wash their hands at all, and men proved to be the biggest offenders. [1]

That study was just about washing your hands after the bathroom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) makes it quite clear that that's not the only time you ought to wash your hands. Other settings in which they advise handwashing are [2]:

  • Wash your hands before, while, and after handling and preparing food, as well as before eating
  • Get the soap and water out before and after handling a wound or touching a sick person, and after sneezing, coughing, or blowing your nose
  • Wash your hands after touching pets and other animals, and handling their food or feces
  • Take care of your hand hygiene after helping a child use the bathroom or changing a diaper

(Because other people are often so careless about their own hand hygiene, we might as well add "wash your hands after shaking hands" and "wash your hands after touching surfaces in public places" to the list.)

Why don't we wash our hands?

I can only assume that it's not because we don't care about getting sick. One study, published in the Lancet, showed that the 2009 swine flu pandemic instantly boosted the handwashing frequency of people in five different countries — by just over 50 percent. Even many people who took other steps, like steering clear of crowded public places and getting vaccinated, thus failed to take the simplest step they could to reduce their risk of getting ill by washing their hands more often! [3]

Something else must be going on, then. We either overestimate the cleanliness of our hands, or underestimate the impact handwashing has on our health. 

Time for a refresher course, then

You might not see them, but they're there — from E. Coli to Salmonella, and from norovirus to adenovirus, your hands are crawling with bacteria. Some are harmless while others are even helpful, but those that can make you sick find their way onto your hands after using the toilet (where you can make contact not just with what just came out of your own digestive system, but also with others' unwanted little "gifts"), after touching surfaces, and after touching other people's dirty hands. [4]

Once they're there, these bacteria continue to make their way around your body if you do not wash your hands. Since I started writing this article, I've rubbed my eyes, adjusted my hair, and scratched my nose — during the process of which I also touched my mouth. I've also been drinking a cup of tea, and obviously touched the mug with my hands. And I've been typing on my laptop. Keyboards, research suggest, are really, really contaminated [5]. You may not think of your computer as a public health risk, but if you don't wash your hands, it easily becomes one. 

We might not usually pay attention to the things we touch, but if you do, even for just five minutes, you'll find that you touch stuff pretty much non-stop. Do you really want to do so with unwashed hands? The answer should be a resounding "no", especially when you consider that:

  • More frequent handwashing can reduce your risk of diarrhea by up to 40 percent [6]
  • Washing your hands when you should reduces your risk of respiratory infections (which include common colds as well as pneumonia and other infections that can be fatal)  by 21 to 40 percent. While it is true that people in developing countries benefit more from handwashing, this doesn't mean you have nothing to worry about if you live in a modern industrial nation. [7, 8]
  • Proper hand hygiene can even, the CDC says, help fight antibiotic resistance [4]. 

So, how do I wash my hands properly?

Research shows that many people do wash their hands, but fail to use soap [9]. If you have access to soap, saving a few seconds by not using it is just not worth it. Once you soap up, including between your fingers, under your finger nails, and up to your wrists, scrub them thoroughly, for at least 20 seconds. You might have heard about singing "Happy Birthday" twice (in your head, no need to do it out loud), and that's a neat trick, because it will get you to those 20 seconds. Make sure you look at your hands as you wash them so you don't miss any spots, however, and rinse them with water afterward. The last step, drying your hands, should only ever involve a clean towel or hand dryer — or the whole operation will have been pointless. 

Should you not have access to soap and water, antibacterial wipes are an acceptable alternative. 

We're all grown-ups, and we don't like being told about something as simple as handwashing, but think for a moment — do you really consistently wash your hands in all the situations you should? If you're anything like most people, you don't. Now, with flu season in full swing, is the right time to reevaluate your hand hygiene and commit to doing better. Your health will thank you. 

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