Washing our hands is one of the greatest defenses we have against disease, and yet it is estimated that fully half of all men and a quarter of all women don’t even wash their hands after they use the bathroom, let alone at other recommended times!  What makes this statistic doubly frightening (and a little nausea inducing) is the fact that the number of germs on the fingertips DOUBLES after you use the bathroom.

It is a documented fact that up to 80% of all infectious diseases are transmitted primarily by touch. Our hands at any given time have between 2 and 10 BILLION bacteria on them.  Germs have a long life on hands—upwards of three hours as opposed to their life on other surfaces which can be measured in minutes or even seconds.Hand Washing Facts

Jewelry, including watches and bracelets, can hide millions of germs where they make contact with skin.  Rings are even worse offenders—the number of germs found under one ring can equal the number of people living on an entire continent.

Not only is it important to wash your hands regularly, you should also dry them thoroughly after each washing.  Hands that are damp are fertile breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses; up to a thousand times more than dry hands are.

Speaking of viruses, some will tell you they are almost impossible to kill and are unaffected by hand washing.  Not exactly true. Soap may not have the power to kill every virus, but a good thorough scrub will reduce the viral counts on hands below the infectious level.

What is even more frightening is that doctors are worse at hand washing than the public they treat. Physicians are cautioned to wash their hands before and after meeting and examining any patient to prevent the spread of disease. However, when a group of pediatric Intensive Care Unit doctors was followed and observed recently it was discovered that they washed their hand less than 10% of the time!  The stated excuses for this appalling lack of hygiene?  The doctors are too busy and the frequent hand washing makes their skin too dry!

A Little History on Hand Washing

This is particularly hair-raising, and harkens back to the 19th century when hospital doctors went from autopsies in the morgue to the beds of women giving birth without bothering to wash their hands.   A post partum infection called puerperal fever killed untold thousands of women in hospitals in those days and was directly caused by this unfortunate practice. When the simple precaution of hand washing was finally accepted rates of death from puerperal fever dropped dramatically.

The leading champion of hygienic precautions, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss, first advocated the practice in the 1840s—he was fired from his position in a hospital in Vienna for making the demand.  He not only had trouble getting a job as a physician subsequent to that, he ended up committed to a mental institution for his zeal in promoting handwashing as a prevention for infection. He died there in 1865.  It wasn’t until years after his death that hand washing was accepted on a widespread basis among the medical profession.

The Correct Way to Wash Your Hands

Wash Your Hands PosterCredit: Centers for Disease Control and PreventionNot only is it important to wash your hands frequently, there is a correct way to wash in order to maximize the germ killing potential of the activity.  A simple rinse will not do it.  To be effective it is important to observe these guidelines:

  • Wet your hands thoroughly with warm water.
  • Add soap to your hands and rub vigorously together to make soapy lather, keeping away from flowing water for at least 20 seconds so as not to wash the lather away.
  • Scrub the fronts and backs of your hands and between each finger and your thumb. Scrub under your nails—a brush designed for this purpose is advised.
  • Rinse your hands under warm running water—thoroughly.  Position your hands so that the rinse water runs back into the sink, not down your elbows.
  • Dry your hands with a clean towel and do a thorough job.
  • Turn off the faucet with a clean paper towel to avoid re-infecting your hands, and dispose of the towel in a garbage receptacle.

The type of soap used is less important than how it is dispensed.  Avoid leaving bar soaps in holders that do not self drain which encourages the growth of germs on the surface of the soap.  Liquid soap dispensers are more hygienic, but they should be used until empty and then thoroughly cleaned before they are refilled.

When away from soap and running water, over the counter alcohol gels are a good substitute, but you should wash your hands with soap and running water at earliest opportunity. Gels are not advised for visibly dirty hands, except in the case of emergencies.