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Hand Washing: Reducing the Risk of Common Infections

Is it important to wash your hands?

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 microbes 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 include using an adequate amount of soap, rubbing the hands together to create friction, and rinsing under running water. Wearing gloves is not a substitute for hand washing.

There is additional information in OSH Answers about how the common cold is transmitted by contaminated hands.

Also see Influenza and Pandemic Influenza. 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.

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 complete information.

When should I wash my hands?

Different situations where people can pick up "germs" include:

  • When hands are visibly soiled.
  • After using the washroom (includes changing diapers).
  • After blowing your nose or after sneezing in your hands.
  • Before and after eating, handling food, drinking or smoking.
  • After touching raw meat, poultry, or fish.
  • After handling garbage or contact with contaminated surfaces such as garbage bins, cleaning cloths.
  • Visiting or caring for sick people.
  • Before preparing or taking medications.
  • After contact with blood or body fluids such as vomit or saliva.
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound.
  • Before inserting and removing contact lenses.
  • Handling pets, animals or animal waste.
  • After handling pet food or pet treats.

Making sure that employees wash their hands properly after using the washroom is very important in reducing disease transmission 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 to effective cleaning. Hands should be washed for a minimum of 15 seconds – 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" twice. The idea of surgeons scrubbing for an operation (as on TV) is very similar.

How do I properly wash my hands?

For effective hand washing, follow these steps:

  • Remove any rings or other jewelry.
  • Use water and wet your hands thoroughly.
  • Use soap (1-3 mL) and lather very well.
  • Scrub your hands, between your fingers, backs of your hands, wrists, and forearms with soap for at least 15 seconds.
  • Scrub under your nails.
  • Rinse thoroughly under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands with a single use towel or use an air dryer.
  • Turn off the taps/faucets with a paper towel.
  • Protect your hands from touching dirty surfaces as you leave the bathroom.
Proper hand washing

Other tips include:

  • Cover cuts with bandages and wear gloves for added protection (cuts are very vulnerable to infections).
  • Artificial nails and chipped nail polish have been associated with an increase in the number of bacteria on the fingernails. Be sure to clean the nails properly.
  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Assume that contact with any human body fluids is infectious.
  • Liquid soap in disposable containers is best. If using reusable containers, they should be washed and dried before refilling. If using a bar of soap, be sure to set it on a rack that allows water to drain or use small bars that can be changed frequently.

What about antibacterial soaps or hand sanitizers?

While it is true that regular soap and water does not actually kill microorganisms (they create a slippery surface that allows the organisms to "slide off"), antibacterial soaps are typically considered to be "overkill" for most purposes. The exception may be in a hospital where special situations are present (e.g., before invasive procedures, when caring for severely 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. Sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs, and might not remove some chemicals. Hand sanitizers may have odours which may be irritating to some users.

  • Apply suggested amount to the palm of one hand based on the manufacturer's recommendation.
  • Rub hands together.
  • Spread and rub the product over your hands and fingers until your hands are dry.

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. 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.

Document last updated on March 1, 2018

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Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, CCOHS does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. CCOHS is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.