Washing your hands is the single most important thing you can do to stop the spread of infection, yet it’s often overlooked or replaced with quick options like antibacterial hand sanitizers. Even if you wash your hands regularly, are you sure that you are using proper procedures to effectively kill germs and bacteria? In celebrating International Clean Hands Week, there’s no better time to refresh your memory and share this helpful tool with others as we also head into flu season.
Antibacterial hand soaps have been all the rage over recent years, but consistent studies have shown that there are no added health benefits for the average user (not including professionals in healthcare settings) according to the CDC. In fact, the FDA recently ruled that a total of 19 specific active ingredients can no longer be marketed in consumer antiseptic wash products. Unless you are a professional in the healthcare industry with specific product and procedure guidelines, plain soap and water is your most effective option for keeping germs at bay.
The effectiveness of handwashing in preventing the spread of infections was first discovered by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis in 1846. Dr. Semmelweis collected data from 2 wards (1 staffed by midwives and the other staffed by physicians and medical students) of the maternity clinic at the General Hospital in Vienna in order to find out why so many women were dying from puerperal fever (childbed fever). He found that the mortality rate in the ward staffed by physicians and medical students was nearly 5 times that of the ward staffed by midwives. After observing and comparing multiple differences between the wards, including birthing positions and bell ringing, Dr. Semmelweis learned through an experience of a fallen colleague that childbed fever could affect people other than women in childbirth. Then realizing that the physician-staffed ward performed autopsies and the midwife-staffed ward didn’t, he instructed staff to clean their hands and instruments with a chlorine solution in addition to soap to eliminate cadaverous particles. After implementing this new procedure, the rate of childbed fever fell dramatically. However, Dr. Semmelweis faced many challenges in getting support and adoption of his ideas and techniques and eventually was committed to a mental asylum where he died from sepsis (you can read the whole story here).
In today’s modern world we fully recognize the importance of handwashing; however, it’s imperative that we use the right products and procedures, particularly in the healthcare industry where the World Health Organization estimates that only 38.7% of health care workers practice proper hand hygiene. Below is a quick guide so you can become a handwashing expert!
- Before, during, and after preparing food and before eating
- Before and after caring for someone who is ill
- Before and after treating a wound or injury
- After using the restroom
- After changing diapers or assisting a child in the restroom
- After coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose
- After touching an animal (including pets), animal food or treats, or animal waste
- After touching garbage
- Avoid touching your face whenever possible
- Do not cough or sneeze into your hands (use the crook of your elbow)
How to properly wash your hands (according to the World Health Organization):
Keep in mind that washing your hands properly should take about as long as singing the "Happy Birthday" song twice, while following the images below.
For kid-friendly versions, you can download posters from the CDC here.