You’ve been told a thousand times by your mother, your doctor, your teacher, your germaphobe roommate: “Wash your hands!” They hound you, but you just roll your eyes, even though you would benefit from heeding their advice.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), washing your hands is the best way to prevent infection and disease such as the common cold, flu and foodborne illnesses.
The importance of handwashing was discovered over 150 years ago, thanks to Ignaz Semmelweis, an Austrian-Hungarian physician whose maternity patients were dying at high rates. Most of the patients who died, Semmelweis noted, had been treated by student physicians who worked on corpses during an anatomy class before working with the maternity patients.
So, in a small experiment, Semmelweis insisted that his students wash their hands—a practice that was unrecognized at the time—before treating the maternity patients. Deaths in the maternity ward fell dramatically.
Still, even though we now know the proven health benefits of handwashing, many people don’t practice it as often as they should.
“Post-bathroom is a real issue for people not washing their hands,” says Beverly Reigle, PhD, associate professor at the UC College of Nursing. “And it is amazing how many people will walk into a kitchen, coming in from the outside, and immediately get into food and not even wash their hands.”
Reigle says it is critical to wash your hands any time they get contaminated or soiled, such as after using the restroom, before and after eating or preparing food and after touching animals or animal waste.
Reigle teaches her nursing students a more extensive handwashing routine appropriate for health care professionals, but for the general public she suggests using an abbreviated method espoused by the CDC to ensure that hands are cleaned thoroughly: • Wet hands with warm water and apply soap, preferably liquid soap if available, to hands. • Rub hands vigorously together for at least 15 seconds, scrubbing all surfaces, and rinse thoroughly with warm water. • Dry with a clean cloth, preferably a disposable paper towel, and then use a dry towel or paper towel to turn off the faucet.
The use of warm water is important, notes Reigle.
“When you use hot water over and over it can be very irritating to the skin,” she says. “And, warm rather than cold water is recommended. Warm water seems to be more effective in dissolving oily dirt.”
Reigle also recommends using regular soap and water, as opposed to alcohol-based hand sanitizers, if possible.
“When you are very contaminated or soiled, washing with soap and water is preferable. If you are contaminated to a lesser degree, you can substitute an alcohol-based rub,” she says.
There is concern about over-use of anti-microbial soap, however.
“The concern is the potential for the emergence of resistant bacteria. Bacteria could develop resistance to the soap’s antibacterial ingredient and develop new pathways of survival and perhaps become more virulent,” says Reigle.
So, how much handwashing is too much? None, says Reigle, as long as you take care of your skin.
“Washing frequently strips away (skin) oils and can irritate the skin. It is important to replenish the skin with moisturizers regularly.”