By Wayne Combs, Ph.D.
U.S. Army Public Health Command
Handwashing with soap is an affordable “do-it-yourself” vaccine that effectively prevents disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that proper handwashing could eliminate half of all cases of food-borne diseases.
Scientific research shows that handwashing with soap prevents disease in a more straightforward and cost-effective way than any single vaccine or medical treatment.
Hands touch so many things and must be washed frequently throughout the day. Frequent handwashing with soap is necessary and good handwashing practices must be a part of a daily routine.
So how are we doing? People worldwide rinse their hands with water in the common belief that rinsing with water alone is sufficient to clean hands because it removes visible dirt. But rinsing hands with water alone is much less effective for removing germs than washing with soap. Unfortunately, handwashing with soap is seldom practiced. Research reveals that the rates of handwashing with soap at critical times (after using the toilet or cleaning a child’s bottom and before handling food) ranges from 0 to 34 percent.
Why are we doing so poorly? In studies around the world, the one major reason for low rates of handwashing with soap is that it is simply not a habit. The challenge we face is how to make handwashing with soap a worldwide habit.
Here are some frequently asked questions about handwashing. The answers will help you and others put good handwashing techniques into practice.
What is the correct way to wash hands?
Proper handwashing requires soap and only a small amount of water. Running water from a tap is not necessary; a small basin of water or cans or plastic bottles with enough clean water to rinse your hands is sufficient. One should cover wet hands with soap; scrub all surfaces, including palms, back, between the fingers, and especially under fingernails for about 20 seconds; rinse well with water; and dry on a clean cloth or by waving in the air. An easy way to gauge 20 seconds is to find a familiar song that takes about that long to sing; for instance, it takes about 20 seconds to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
Is using antibacterial soap better than using regular soap?
With proper use, all soaps are equally effective at removing the germs that cause disease.
What if I don’t have soap and water?
Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to remove germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs. Also, hand sanitizers are not as effective when hands are visibly dirty.
How do you use hand sanitizers?
Apply the product to the palm of one hand. Rub your hands together. Rub the product over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry.
How can we change people’s handwashing behavior?
Simply telling people to do it may not be enough. You can start by setting up an environment that promotes and encourages handwashing in common bathroom areas. Prepare a positive environment that will help people feel comfortable enough to stay longer and practice proper hygiene. Make the experience fast and simple. The less people have to touch or do, the more likely they are to wash their hands.
- Clean the bathroom from top to bottom. Maintain and refresh the bathroom multiple times throughout the day.
- Replace liquid and solid soaps with foam soap. Use soaps with no scent or a light pleasant scent.
- Replace old soap dispensers with hands-free dispensers. Replace towels with hands-free dryers if possible.
- Hang posters that advertise proper handwashing and its benefits.
Keeping your hands clean is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid sickness and spreading germs to others. Take advantage of this “do-it-yourself” vaccine.
For more information about proper handwashing techniques, visit the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing, www.globalhandwashing.org.