Hand hygiene, or proper handwashing, is important for everyone. When you wash your hands, it not only removes dirt and grime, but it also helps get rid of germs. What you may not know is it wasn’t until 1847 until this important finding came to light in the medical profession.
Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis noticed, when he washed his hands using chlorinated lime, women had a greater chance of surviving childbirth. His breakthrough came in 1847, but it wasn’t widely accepted until after his death.
Semmelweis published papers showing the link between proper hygiene and mortality rates, but the established medical community didn’t believe his findings. He eventually went mad trying to tell the world to wash their hands to avoid often fatal infections and was committed to an asylum where he eventually died.
Fortunately, the medical community came around, and we now know how important it is to wash your hands.
Handwashing Saves Lives
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website says it best on the importance of handwashing: Simply put, it saves lives by stopping the spread of germs.
Helen Arnold, RN, is an infection prevention specialist at Banner Desert Medical Center and Banner Children's at Desert in Mesa, AZ. She added, “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 infection and becoming ill. This is true whether we are in a hospital or community setting.”
The CDC website states proper handwashing reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31% and reduces respiratory illnesses, like the common cold, by 16-21%. Also, data shows that roughly 1.8 million children die each year around the world from pneumonia and diseases that cause diarrhea.
Getting into the practice of washing your hands with soap and warm water is always a good idea. In fact, the CDC recommends the following as critical times when you should wash up:
Before, during and after preparing food
Before eating food
Before and after caring for someone who is sick
Before and after treating a cut or wound
After using the toilet
After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
After touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste
After handling pet food or pet treats
After touching garbage
So, is it best to use soap or hand sanitizer? According to Arnold, the choice is simple.
“It is always best to wash hands with soap and water whenever possible whether it is antibacterial based or not,” Arnold said. “However, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is an efficient way to reduce most germs.”
She adds that both soap or alcohol-based hand sanitizer should be used correctly. If your hands are visibly dirty hands need to be washed with soap and water. Also, there are some germs, such as clostridium difficile, an easily-spreadable disease that causes severe diarrhea, cannot be removed with alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
You have your soap or your hand sanitizer, but do you know how long you should wash and how much of your hand? The good news is Arnold does.
“No matter what product is selected, it must be used properly to be effective,” Arnold said. “When washing hands with soap and water, scrub all surfaces for a minimum of 20 seconds.”
Her recommendation is to hum the birthday song twice to ensure you have washed your hands long enough. If you’re using hand sanitizer, scrub it all over your hands until is dry.
Whatever you choose to wash your hands, Arnold says you should make sure you wash more than just the palm of your hands. Make sure you get between your fingers and under your nails. You also want to make sure you are using friction on your palms, the back of your hands, in between your fingers and under your nails.
And if you use soap and water to wash your hands, make sure to rinse and dry them well, so you don’t irritate your skin.
“Simply wash your hands at every opportunity,” Arnold said. “Educate visitors and family to do the same and explain why. It literally saves lives.”