How to Wash Your Hands

Do you know how long to scrub your hands? Or that rinsing is actually the most important step? Washing your hands isn't really about killing germs. It's about getting germs off your hands, and believe it or not, you're probably doing it wrong. These steps will lead you towards more efficient hand-washing.

1
Turn on the Water

Interior Chrome faucet
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Clean, running water is more important than temperature. Turn on the water and get your hands wet. You can turn the water off or leave it running, depending on your preference. Turning it off obviously saves water but then you increase the number of times you touch the faucet handles with germs on them—that you are attempting to wash off.

2
Lather Up

Child with soapy hands
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Soap is important. It helps lift the germs and microbes off your skin while you wash your hands and makes the whole process more effective. One thing you don't need? Antibacterial soap. Studies have shown that it's no better than regular soap and overuse of the commonly used ingredient triclosan could actually contribute to antibiotic resistance. That's one problem that we definitely don't need to make any worse than it already is.

3
Scrub for at Least 20 Seconds

Washing hands
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Most people don't scrub their hands nearly long enough. Twenty seconds doesn't sound like a long time but it is much longer than you would imagine.

To make sure you are washing the proper amount of time? Sing the Happy Birthday song to yourself (or out loud) twice.

While you are at it, make sure you are completely covering your hands. Scrub between your fingers, under your nails, all over your thumbs and up your wrists. There are germs all over your hands, not just on your palms and fingertips.

4
Rinse The Soap (and Germs) Away

Close-up of woman washing hands in bathroom sink.
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Rinsing is ultimately how you get the germs off of your hands, so it's really the most important step. Again, it's important to use clean running water. Dipping your hands in a stagnant pool of water (or even standing water in the sink) is not the same as rinsing the soap off with clean running water. If all you have is a pool of water—for instance, you are outside and have no access to running water—it is better than nothing and certainly preferable to not washing your hands at all.

Many people don't realize that washing your hands doesn't typically kill germs, it is simply the most effective way to get them off of your hands so you don't spread them to yourself or others. Rinsing allows you to wash the germs and microbes away, drastically cutting down the chances that you will spread disease.

5
Dry Your Hands

Woman drying her hands
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Finally, we come to drying. Whether you use a paper towel, air dryer or cloth hand towel, dry your hands completely. Studies have been inconclusive as to which method of drying is best, so use whatever is available or preferred. If you are using cloth hand towels, they should be washed frequently—especially if they are in a shared household where they could become contaminated easily.

6
Turn Off the Water

Close up of faucet
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This could really be step 1.2 instead of step 6. If you want to save water, go ahead and turn the water off after you get your hands wet and then on and off again when you need to rinse them. According to the CDC, "While some recommendations include using a paper towel to turn off the faucet after hands have been rinsed, this practice leads to increased use of water and paper towels, and there are no studies to show that it improves health."

Use your best judgment here. You also might want to consider using your paper towel to open the bathroom door as you're leaving if you're using a public restroom.

Sources:

"When & How to Wash Your Hands". Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives 17 Oct 14. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Show Me the Science - How to Wash Your Hands". Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives 17 Oct 14. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services.