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Handwashing

What is the best way to wash hands?

At home or work, wash your hands often—and properly:

  • Use clean, running water; if available, use warm water.

  • Wet your hands before applying soap.

  • Rub your soapy hands together for at least 20 seconds. Make sure to wash all surfaces well, including your wrists, palms, backs of hands, and between fingers.

  • Clean and remove the dirt from under your fingernails.

  • Rinse your hands thoroughly to remove all soap.

  • Dry your hands with an air dryer or a clean paper towel.

  • Turn off the faucet with a paper towel.

If soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be used to clean your hands. When using this type of product:

  • Apply the gel to the palm of one hand.

  • Rub your hands together.

  • Rub the product over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until they are dry.

How often should I wash my hands?

Hands should be washed often—more frequently than most adults and children actually do. Because bacteria and other germs cannot be seen with the naked eye, they can be anywhere. According to the CDC, handwashing is especially important:

  • Before preparing food

  • Before meals

  • Before and after treating an open sore, cut, or wound

  • After using the restroom

  • After touching animals or animal waste

  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has gone to the restroom

  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing

  • After handling garbage

  • When hands are dirty

  • When someone around you is ill

What is the difference between cleaning and disinfecting?

Cleaning and disinfecting are two different things. Cleaning simply refers to using soap and water to remove dirt and most germs. Disinfecting, on the other hand, refers to cleaning solutions that contain ingredients that kill bacteria and other germs. Many surfaces look clean, but may be contaminated with germs.

The CDC recommends the following when cleaning and/or disinfecting:

  • Wear rubber gloves when cleaning up blood, vomit, or feces, and when you have cuts or abrasions on your hand that make it easy for an infection to enter the body. 

  • Read the directions on the cleaning product label, including the precautions.

  • First, clean the surface with soap (or another cleaner)* and water.

  • Second, use a disinfectant on the surface, and leave it on for a few minutes, depending on the manufacturer's recommendations.

  • Third, wipe the surface dry with a paper towel, and throw the paper towel away, or use a cloth towel that is washed afterward.

  • Fourth, wash your hands thoroughly, even after wearing gloves.

    *Always store cleaning solutions and other household chemicals in their original containers and out of children's reach.

The two most important household areas to clean and disinfect properly are the kitchen and the bathroom. In the kitchen, bacteria from raw food can contaminate surfaces and food preparation areas. Without proper cleaning, this can spread disease. Other important areas that require proper cleaning include children's changing tables and diaper pails.

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 7/18/2014
© 2000-2014 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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