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Simply put, yes. Hand washing is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infections. You can spread certain "germs" (a general term for pathogens like viruses and bacteria) casually by touching another person. You can also catch germs when you touch contaminated objects or surfaces and then you touch your face (mouth, eyes, and nose).
"Good" hand washing techniques includes using an adequate amount of soap, rubbing the hands together to create friction for at least 20 seconds, and rinsing under running water. Wearing gloves is not a substitute for hand washing, and hand washing is often required before and after wearing gloves.
There is additional information in OSH Answers about how the common cold is transmitted by contaminated hands.
Other steps that can be taken to reduce the spread of infections are discussed in the OSH Answers document Good Hygiene Practices - Reducing the Spread of Infections and Viruses. Also see Influenza and Pandemic Influenza.
Please note: For healthcare providers and certain other professions where workers are exposed to blood and certain other body fluids, using "routine practices" is preferred. Please see the OSH Answers document Routine Practices for more specific information.
Hand washing is important step when controlling infections as well as for personal hygiene. Hand washing is recommended:
During a pandemic, it is also important to clean your hands regularly, including the situations listed above, as well as after you have been in a public space or business (e.g., grocery store, pharmacy, etc.), or touched a surface that is frequently touched by other people like doors, payment machines, gas pumps, etc.
Making sure that employees wash their hands properly after using the washroom is very important in reducing disease transmission of gastrointestinal infections.
Using soap and lathering up is very important (rinsing hands in water only is not as effective). Use warm running water where possible for comfort, but water temperature is not important for effective cleaning. Hands should be washed for a minimum of 20 seconds all together (rinsing and lathering) – longer if the hands are visibly soiled. To help people (especially children) wash long enough, one option may be to sing a short song such as "Happy Birthday" or "A, B, C" - you might need to sing it twice if you sing fast. The idea of surgeons scrubbing their hands for an operation (as on TV) is very similar.
For effective hand washing, follow these steps:
Other tips include:
While it is true that some pathogens are not destroyed by regular soap and water, those that survive are surrounded by the soap molecules and are washed away in the rinse water. Antibacterial soaps are typically considered to be unnecessary for most purposes. The exception may be in a hospital where situations are present (e.g., before invasive procedures, when caring for immuno-compromised patients, critical care areas, intensive care nurseries, etc.). Antibacterial agents should be chosen carefully based on their active ingredients and characteristics, and when persistent antibacterial or antimicrobial activity on the hands is desired.
When there is no soap or water available, one alternative is to use hand sanitizers or waterless hand scrubs. Some of these products are made of ethyl alcohol mixed with emollients (skin softeners) and other agents. They are often available as a gel, or on wipes or towelettes. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers should contain at least 60% alcohol to be effective. Sanitizers do not eliminate all types of pathogens. Hand sanitizers may have odours which may be irritating to some users.
When using a hand sanitizer:
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are the preferred method for healthcare providers when the hands are not visibly soiled. The sanitizers can also be used by paramedics, home care attendants, or other mobile workers where hand washing facilities are not available. These alcohol-based hand sanitizers (with at least 60% alcohol) are also recommended for the general public during a pandemic. However, these agents are not effective when the hands are heavily contaminated with dirt, blood, or other organic materials. Hand washing with soap and water is recommended when hands are visibly soiled.