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5 key things to know about washing your hands

How long do you need to wash your hands to kill germs: 10 seconds? 20? 30? A minute?

The CDC says the goal is 20 seconds — a mark most of us aren’t hitting. In fact, 97% of Americans don’t wash their hands properly according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Here’s everything you need to know about handwashing, from why you should do it to how to make sure you do it right.

1. It’s the best protection from getting sick.

Handwashing is the simplest, most effective way to protect you from getting sick. Many diseases are spread solely by germs that could be killed by washing hands with soap and clean, running water. These germs come from everything from raw meat to feces.

The most common mistakes people make when washing their hands are: 

  • Not washing with soap and water
  • Not washing for 20 seconds
  • Not getting hands wet
  • Failing to use soap

2. Handwashing removes germs that cause infection.

Germs can easily get into your body when:

  • You touch your eyes, nose or mouth, which most of us do often without realizing it
  • You prepare food and drink, which can act as incubators for germs to multiply and grow
  • You touch handrails, table tops, computers, toys or another person’s hands

Handwashing can also help prevent many illnesses, especially diarrhea, respiratory illness, colds, and gastrointestinal problems.

3. Wash hands at key points throughout the day.

  • Before, during and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cutor wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

4. To be effective, it must be done properly.

The CDC prescribes 5 steps for success:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold). Turn off the tap. Apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands, including the backs, in between fingers and under nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, aka the amount of time it takes to hum, “Happy Birthday” twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

5. Hand sanitizers aren’t as effective as handwashing.

Hand sanitizers:

  • Don’t get rid of all types of germs
  • May not be as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy
  • May not remove harmful chemicals like pesticides and heavy metals

If hand sanitizer is your only option, however, you should use it. Just make sure to use a sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).


WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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