Mayo Clinic Minute: You're washing your hands all wrong
Flu Season Tips for Washing Your Hands
Whether you use soap and water or hand sanitizers, keeping your hands germ-free can help protect you against influenza.
By George Vernadakis
Medically Reviewed by Sanjai Sinha, MD
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Widespread flu activity continues to hit most of the country as the 2019–18 flu season shapes up to be the worst in years. While it’s not foolproof, the flu shot is still the best way to protect against influenza. But good personal hygiene, starting with washing your hands, is also essential to reduce your risk of getting sick or spreading germs to others.
Viruses that cause a common cold and the flu can spread easily. Personal contact like handshakes or touching contaminated surfaces such as doorknobs can cause germs to accumulate on your hands. By touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, you can infect yourself. That’s why handwashing is so important.
“Handwashing is the best way to prevent colds and other respiratory and infectious diseases that are transmitted by hand to mouth or hand to nose and eye contact,” says Samuel N. Grief, MD, an associate professor of clinical family medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “Soap acts as a vehicle to trap the germs that are loosened by the act of rubbing your hands together under water. These germs can then be rinsed away by the water.”
The Right Way to Wash Your Hands
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands often, for at least 20 seconds at a time. When rubbing soap on your hands, be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between the fingers, and under your nails.
Don’t worry about getting the water very hot. According to a study published in theInternational Journal of Consumer Studiesin January 2013, most people believe using hot water is more effective than washing with warm, room temperature, or cold water. But there’s no evidence to support this. Heat does kill bacteria, but at a much higher temperature than is comfortable for washing your hands.
“There is no one best water temperature to wash one's hands,” says Dr. Grief. “If your hands are really dirty and greasy, use of warm to hot water will do a better job of trapping dirt and grease within the soap, allowing for a more thorough cleaning.”
The type of soap also doesn’t typically matter, according to Grief, “as long as it lathers and spreads over the hands sufficiently to trap the germs.”
Hand Sanitizers: What You Need to Know
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers make a good substitute for handwashing when soap and water are not available.
, sanitizers with an alcohol concentration between 60 percent and 95 percent are more effective at killing germs than those with a lower alcohol concentration or non-alcohol-based sanitizers.
The right way to use a sanitizer is to apply it to the palm of one hand and rub it all over the surfaces of both hands until they’re dry. Even though alcohol-based hand sanitizers can deactivate many types of microbes when used correctly, they’re not effective if people don’t use enough sanitizer or wipe it off before it dries.
The CDC points out that soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers at removing or inactivating certain kinds of germs like norovirus, which is the most common cause of gastroenteritis.
When Should You Wash Your Hands?
Regular handwashing is especially important at certain times.
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