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How to wash your hands properly, according to doctors

Believe it or not, there’s a right way to wash your hands.
Washing hands
Wet your hands (to the wrist) with clean, running water (the temperature doesn’t matter). Turn off the tap, and apply a good amount of soap.kieferpix / Getty Images

Washing your hands is likely a perfunctory and frequent a part of your daily routine. Yet, it never ceases to amaze Dr. Robert Segal, MD, founder of Medical Offices of Manhattan, how many full-grown adults manage to do a less-than ideal job at hand-washing.

“As a doctor, I have to be really careful about keeping my hands clean and avoid spreading viruses from patient to patient. But when I'm out at a restaurant sometimes, I notice that people either wash their hands too quickly, don’t use enough soap or worse, don’t wash at all,” says Segal. We’ve seen it too and, frankly, as hand-washing is the easiest way to prevent the spread of illness and disease, we’d like to encourage the practice. With flu season in full swing and the coronavirus continuing to spread, we thought it might be helpful to ask Dr. Segal and Timothy Laird, MD, board certified physician from Health First, for their healthy hand-washing tips.

>> Here's what you need to know about the coronavirus

How to wash your hands

Believe it or not, there’s a right way to wash your hands. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) breaks it down into these five steps:

  1. Wet your hands (to the wrist) with clean, running water (the temperature doesn’t matter). Turn off the tap, and apply a good amount of soap.
  2. Lather up the soap by rubbing your hands together. Don’t forget to spread that lather to the backs of your hands up to your wrists, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Both doctors recommend humming the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning-to-end twice to get the timing right. “Before surgery, surgeons have to stand at the scrub sink for 5 full minutes, and use an under-the-nail brush, and a very strong soap with a scrub brush on each finger, both sides of their hands, and scrub all the way up to their elbows. No one expects the rest of us to scrub as much, but that gives you an idea of what is needed to really kill most germs,” Laird says.
  4. Rinse your hands thoroughly under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean paper towel (best bet), hand dryer (OK), or let them air dry (in a pinch).

According to both doctors and the CDC, you should wash your hands:

  • Before, during and after preparing food. “Keeping clean hands and clean food prep surfaces, like counters and cutting boards, and washing raw produce, are all ways to prevent diarrhea and other illnesses,” says Laird.
  • Right before eating food. Think of your hands as food utensils. “The main germ portals of entry to our bodies are our mouths and nose, and our hands,” Laird explains. “Our hands inoculate germs into our bodies when they touch our face or food. We then ingest the germs and get sick.”
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea. Viruses that cause vomiting and diarrhea, like norovirus, are super contagious and hand-washing is your best line of defense to prevent going down yourself.
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound to prevent infection.
  • After using the toilet, changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet — “even a microscopic amount of fecal matter can contain millions of germs,” says the CDC.
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Contagious germs from a sneeze can live in the air for hours, many different viruses can cause colds, and the influenza virus can live on a surface for minutes to hours after an infected person is exposed to it, says Segal.
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, treats or animal waste. According to the FDA, pet food can be contaminated with bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses, such as salmonellosis and listeriosis.
  • After touching garbage. Because, ew.

Depending on where you are when you’re washing, here a few things to keep in mind

Be diligent at restaurants

When you go out to eat, you use your hands to open the door, pull out the chair and handle the menu. That's why washing your hands right before you eat will help keep germs at bay — and keep you healthier, says Segal.

Be even more diligent in public restrooms

"The door to a public restroom — or most things in any restroom — are a hotbed of germs,” says Segal. “That's why automatic sinks and paper towel dispensers work well against the spread of virus. You don't have to touch them." If those aren’t available, use whatever is there and be sure to dry your hands thoroughly — germs cling to moisture, Segal explains. Hang onto your hand towel, or grab a new one, and use it to open the door to keep your hands clean. Not everyone washes their hands after using the restroom.

Carry sanitizer

Hand-washing holds an edge over sanitizer when it comes to keeping your hands clean, but a sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol can help stave off germs if there’s no sink or soap around. “Rub it around your hands for at least 20 seconds, and until the hands are dry. It doesn’t work if hands are very soiled or covered in oil, but it’s a good alternative if soap and water aren’t readily available,” says Laird. “There are even a few germs that are better killed by the gel than soap and water. So, in healthcare settings, we try and do a bit of both. We use gel frequently and use soap and water hand scrubs after several gel uses.”

Segal recommends bringing sanitizer wipes onto planes (very germy) and cleaning every surface that touches you, like the airplane seats, touch screen, belt and tray. Traveling across land? Use sanitizer on your hands after dealing with car service belt buckles, train seats and subway poles.

All told, hand-washing is a fine art well worth perfecting. “Hand-washing is one of the best ways of keeping you and your family healthy,” Laird says.

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