Washing your Hands – How Hard Could It Be?


Washing your hands, how hard could it be? And why do we care? In this day of the sudden deaths of teens with meningitis; skin-eating “strep” infections, and antibiotic resistant bacteria stalking our hospitals hand washing takes on a truly functional role in all our lives. So, how hard can it be to wash our hands properly? After all, it was one of those rules our parents promulgated daily when we were kids.

In 1967, the University of Minnesota started several studies of hand washing habits in the United States. They have watched us at a variety of public venues — theaters, State Fairs, concerts, and the like to see how many of us actually washed our hands after toilet activities. They found that men almost never wash their hands (11%) and women only one third of the time. In other words, we failed to wash our hands at all or we “rinsed” – the no soap method only. The good news is that we are improving over time, in 2004 men were up to 22-54% and women 50-78%. See which category you fall in as Mom says, “Go wash your hands.”

  • Enter the bathroom, close the door (no witnesses), turn on the water for 3 to 4 seconds, turn water off, touching towel is optional and leave the bathroom. This is the old auditory signal to Mom. Not always successful for the tell tale mud still covering your hands.
  • Enter the bathroom, close the door, turn on the water and allow the water to hit the fingertips of at least one hand for 3 to 4 seconds, turn off the water, dab dry. This is meeting the actual touching of water to fingers you deemed “truthful” when Mom asks, “Did you wash your hands?”
  • Enter the bathroom, close the door, turn on the water for 3 to 4 seconds and actually place both hands under the water and perhaps apply some pressure between hands to accomplish some removal of obvious dirt. No soap engaged. This is most common, “I washed my hands” method for the majority of adults.
  • Enter the bathroom, turn on water, wet hands, apply soap and scrub hands for 3-4 seconds and rinse well is the mode most people who deliver medical care use to wash their hands whether at work or at home.

If, we as a community really want to impact the number of shared “colds”, meningitis, or resistant infections we have to learn to wash our hands properly. We can take a page from the dentists’ patient education on how long it should take to brush your teeth. No, it is not ten seconds! It is two minutes which is why the battery operated brushes don’t turn off for two minutes. We need to time our hand washing to get it right. It should take 30 seconds to wash and 10 seconds to rinse. Time yourself! Most of us don’t come close to that much time. Over the years, I have heard two methods to time yourself most consistently for 30 seconds, they follow.

Turn on the water, wet hands, and add soap (now you can actually stop water) and while the scrubbing of hands, fingers and nails starts, hum the “birthday song” or the music from the game show Jeopardy. When hummed in their entirety they last 30 seconds. Scrub for entire jingle, rinse well and dry with clean towels or heat source. Clean hands are the results, not only from obvious dirt, but the friction and soap decrease the survival rate of those nasty bacteria and viruses that cause illness.

When to wash your hands is something of a dilemma for mankind as well. The clearly dirty hands need it but it is what we can’t see that might kill us. More and more infections are being passed on sports equipment: footballs, basketballs and similar. After sports or playing outside, we should wash our hands well and wipe down the balls and shared toys with a disinfectant. We don’t have to kill every bacteria or virus-diminishing the “viral count” is enough. Washing after handling food in general is a good idea but especially with raw meats. If you have a cold or other illness-sneezing and coughing spreads bugs everywhere-wash your hands often. Finally, how this all got started, wash after going to the toilet. All poop stinks-yours is not special or bug free. Wash your hands-it’s really not that hard. Be safe.


1 Comment

  1. This is a great article. It really highlights all the proper hand washing techniques we learn in nursing school. It’s amazing how many people aren’t washing their hands effectively. And when soap and water is not available, a pro grade instant hand sanitizer should be utilized.

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