The simplest way to keep yourself – and others – safe
Mum and Dad always said it – and they were right: wash your hands. The practice rinses away garden-variety bad bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, both of which are common food poisoning triggers; it can also save you from cold and flu viruses, not to mention scary things like coronavirus. But if you don’t wash properly, you’re putting yourself at risk. Don’t make these mistakes.
You don’t wash long enough
A study published in the Journal of Environmental Health found that 95 per cent of people don’t wash hands long enough to effectively kill germs – that’s 20 seconds of scrubbing with soap and water, according to the Australian Government department of Health. “We tell kids and adults to sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice,” says clinical associate professor, Dr Roshini Raj. The average hand-washing time was only about six seconds, the study found. What’s more, 15 per cent of men and 7 per cent of women didn’t wash their hands at all after using the restroom.
You skip nooks and crannies
If you just rub soap between your palms, rinse and call it a day, your hands are probably still dirty. “Germs love to hide under fingernails and in the pockets between fingers, so you should scrub these areas every time you wash,” says Dr Raj. Be sure to scrub vigorously to work up a good lather – friction is key to eliminate dirt, grease and microbes from the skin.
You don’t dry thoroughly
The most diligent hand-washing techniques are worthless if you skimp on drying. Germs love to breed in moisture, says Dr Raj. Leaving the restroom with still-damp hands can make it easier to pick up germy microbes from the next surface you touch. If you have the choice of paper towels or air blowers, choose the paper towels. In a review of hand-washing studies dating back to the 1970s, researchers concluded that paper towels are superior to dryers at getting hands properly dry without spattering germs or drying out skin (the review was published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings). If blowers are your only option, be sure to spend enough time with your hands under the blowing air until they’re completely dry, even if it takes a while.
You wash only after using the bathroom
Anytime you touch a public surface – elevator buttons, a doorknob, the ATM, or a train pole – you’re at risk for picking up germs or bacteria. “Most people know to wash after going to the bathroom, but you should wash periodically throughout the entire day, especially during cold and flu season,” says Dr Raj. For times when it’s not convenient to get to a sink, stash a bottle of hand sanitiser in your bag or desk drawer. A sanitiser with an alcohol content of at least 60 per cent is effective at killing many types of germs, says the Australian Department of Health.
You assume you have to use hot water
Soap and hot water are one tip from Mum you can safely ignore. Dr Raj says that despite the widespread belief that you need hot water to kill hand germs, lukewarm or even cold water will do the job just as well. (In fact, they’re actually better for your skin because they’re less drying). She notes that while heat has been proven to kill bacteria, you’d need to use boiling water at a temp of about 100°C to see a significantly greater reduction in pathogens.
You skip the soap and use hand sanitiser instead
If your hand sanitiser is alcohol-based, it can remove and inactivate many types of microbes effectively. But it has its limits, like not being able to eliminate all types of germs or harmful chemicals. Plus, many people use hand sanitiser incorrectly from not using a large enough volume of liquid sanitiser to wiping it off before it’s had time to dry. Soap and water are your best bet for fighting off germs like norovirus and Clostridium difficile, a bacteria that can cause diarrhoea or life-threatening inflammation of the colon.
You touch other surfaces immediately after washing your hands
Nothing ruins your hard-earned hand scrubbing more than touching other surfaces right after you wash them. The public health and safety group NSF International (National Sanitation Foundation) reports their scientists found coliform bacteria – a family that includes E. coli and salmonella – on 75 per cent of dish sponges and clothes, 45 per cent of kitchen sinks, 32 per cent of cutting boards, and 18 per cent of cutting boards. The bathroom was also problematic: 9 per cent of the taps and 27 per cent of toothbrush holders had traces of the bacteria. Since moist surfaces are breeding grounds for germs, it’s best to turn off the tap or open the door in a public restroom with a paper towel to keep your hands clean.
You don’t rinse your bar soap before each use
One study said that pathogenic organisms may hide out on bar soap during and after use, according to the Centers for disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Research suggests that this bacteria is unlikely to transfer to your hands from the soap during use, but there are extra steps you can take to fully ensure that these germs don’t latch onto your hands. Pathogens like bacteria and viruses can live for several hours on wet soap, says professor emerita, Dr Elaine L. Larson. But there’s an easy fix, she points out: “Avoid having bar soap sit in a container in which it will be covered with moisture.” Larson also advises rinsing the bar with running water before you use it. “The germs are generally washed down the drain making it safe to use.” If the soap dries out between uses, you should be fine.
You think antibacterial soap is better than plain soap
There’s no need to grab the antibacterial soap from the chemist shelf anymore. Very little evidence shows that antibacterial soap is better at preventing illness and the spread of infections better than good old-fashioned soap and water.
You use soap from a refilled dispenser
You may think that liquid soap dispensers in the bathroom are harmless, but one small 2011 study published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology found that, in a primary school bathroom, soap dispensers refilled from a large liquid soap bottle can lead to a 26-fold increase in bacteria on your hands compared to soap dispensers that have been replaced with a sealed refill. You’ll be surprised to find that the soap dispensers replaced with sealed liquid soap refills actually showed a significant decrease in bacteria! If you’re weary of the soap in a public bathroom, bring a travel-sized bottle of soap with you instead.
Sign up here to get Reader’s Digest’s favourite stories straight to your inbox!