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Handwashing 101: Why Clean Hands Save Lives

When it comes to personal hygiene and staying healthy, it starts and ends with our hands. Unwashed hands are one of the quickest ways to spread germs and infections.

Germs are everywhere. They reside in our gut, on our skin and on every surface we touch. Many germs are not all bad. We need some to keep us healthy and our immune systems strong. However, most infections are spread through hand contact with surfaces or other hands. 

Take a moment to think back to all the surfaces you touched today. It may not seem like much, but on average, we touch about 140 objects a day – our faces (eyes, nose and mouth), phones, doorknobs, elevator buttons, etc.

Handwashing saves lives

Washing your hands properly with soap and water is one of the simplest but most important things you can do to prevent infection, protect your health and those around you. 

“Diligent hand hygiene will always be one of the most important defenses all of us have to reduce the risk of catching all types of infections and becoming ill,” said Helen Arnold, MS-N, a director of infection prevention at Banner Health. “This is true whether in health care settings or out and about in the community.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), proper handwashing reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 30% and reduces respiratory illnesses, like colds, the flu and COVID-19, by 20%. In addition, research shows it also helps prevent antibiotic resistance. 

“Antibiotic resistance happens when germs like bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them,” Arnold said.

Interestingly, the practice of handwashing is just a little over 150 years old. Before the mid-19th century, many people died from infections that could have been prevented by basic hand hygiene. 

We have British doctor Joseph Lister to thank for changes to handwashing practices. Dr. Lister’s theory of antiseptics and basic handwashing to kill germs and bacteria revolutionized medicine. [Fun fact: The mouthwash Listerine is named in his honor!]

Let’s do our part to stop the spread of illness and disease. Find out when and how to wash your hands properly.

Handwashing 101

When to wash your hands

Getting into the practice of washing hands with soap and warm water is always a good idea. Although it’s impossible to be completely germ-free, washing your hands frequently can help prevent the spread of bacteria, viruses and others. 

The CDC says these are the critical times you should wash up:

  • Before, during and after preparing food (including between handling raw meat)
  • Before and after eating
  • Before and after caring for a sick person
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the bathroom, changing diapers or cleaning up a child who used the toilet
  • After you blow your nose, cough or sneeze
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, food and treats or animal waste 
  • After touching garbage
  • After leaving a public place
  • After touching objects or surfaces that may be frequently touched by other people, such as door handles, gas pumps, shopping carts, tables, etc.
  • When your hands are visibly dirty

If you are going to cough or sneeze, try to do so in your elbow. Known as the vampire sneeze or “the dab” sneeze, this helps keep your hands free of germs and reduces the risk of you spreading them too.

How to wash your hands

Follow these five steps for cleaning hands properly:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water, then turn the tap off.
  2. Apply soap and lather the soap. Rub hands palm to palm, the back of your hands, in between your fingers and underneath your fingernails. 
  3. Rub them vigorously, using friction, for a minimum of 20 seconds. Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands with a clean towel, paper towel or air dry them. 

Watch and share hand hygiene videos to raise awareness and educate your family and community about healthy hygiene behaviors.

As well, here are additional tips to help teach children healthy hand hygiene behaviors.

Which one is better? Soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizers?

It’s always best to wash your hands with soap and water whenever possible, whether it is antibacterial soap or not. However, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are an efficient way to kill most germs when there is no visible dirt on your hands.

“When your hands aren’t visibly dirty, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are more effective at killing potentially deadly germs on hands than soap,” Arnold said. “It’s also gentler on the skin as it causes less irritation and dryness that can occur with soap and water.”

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill good and bad germs, including antibiotic-resistant germs, by destroying proteins and protective outer membranes that germs need to survive. The good germs will quickly return to your hands after using the sanitizer.

“If you use a hand sanitizer, ensure the product contains at least 60% alcohol,” Arnold noted.

If your hands are visibly dirty, wash with soap and warm water. Some germs, like clostridium difficile (C. diff), an easily spreadable disease that causes diarrhea, can’t be removed with alcohol-based hand sanitizers.


Handwashing offers some big rewards in terms of personal hygiene and staying healthy. Adopt this healthy habit, and you’ll play an important role in protecting your health and the health of others around you.

If you have questions or concerns about your health, schedule an appointment with a primary care provider near you

For other related blogs, check out:

Wellness Men's Health Women's Health Children's Health COVID-19 Cold and Flu Infectious Disease