An expert guide to washing your hands

Sue Millward Sue Millward Quality Lead Infection Prevention
Sue Millward, Quality Lead Infection Prevention at Nuffield Health explains why hand hygiene is so important and dispels some common myths so we can reduce the risk of both picking up and spreading infection and diseases.

Keeping your hands clean is important all year round, but as the outbreak of Coronavirus dominates the headlines, it's reminded us how important it is to keep our hands clean during winter, when germs are easily spread.

But how much do we really know about the right way to wash our hands? First, let’s look at a few common beliefs about hand hygiene and separate fact from fiction.

1. Most germs and infections like Coronavirus are spread by touch and risks can be reduced by washing your hands

TRUE: It is estimated that approximately 80% of infections are spread by touch: you can have germs on your hands after coughing and sneezing or visiting the toilet.

Germs can also be found in the environment on places such as door handles, escalator rails, tube handrails etc. It is therefore important to wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or visiting the toilet but also before eating or putting your hands in your mouth – e.g. having a sweet.

2. Washing your hands is the single most effective way to remove bugs and reduce the risk of infection

TRUE: The single most important thing we can do to protect ourselves and others from getting or spreading an infection is to clean our hands in the right way and at the right time – either by washing with warm water and soap or using a sanitiser such as an alcohol hand rub.

3. You should always use antibacterial soap

FALSE: Normal soap is a perfectly effective means of breaking up and removing bacteria from your hands. There is no advantage to using antibacterial soap: diarrhoea caused by bugs such as Norovirus and Clostridium Difficile can be removed using soap and warm water.

Overuse of antibacterial agents contributes to antibacterial resistance and we should all be helping to reduce the use of these products in our homes.

4. Letting your hands air dry is better than using a paper towel

FALSE: Damp or moist hands are 1000x more likely to spread bacteria than dry hands and so it is important that you dry your hands thoroughly after washing them.

Many people move away from hand dryers before their hands are properly dry. Paper towels are not only good at drying your hands but also removing any bugs left on your hands after washing.

5. Hand sanitisers are not as good as soap and water.

FALSE: Alcohol-based hand sanitisers are what we would describe as the ‘gold standard’ when it comes to hand washing. They are also a lot more convenient as you can carry them anywhere with you.

For example, if you are holding a handrail on a bus or train and then you want to, say, take a mint out of your pocket and eat it, you can ensure your hands are clean by using a hand sanitiser first.

How to wash your hands correctly

Here’s a simple six-point checklist to follow when washing your hands. The whole process should take about 60 seconds.

  • 1. Wet your hands with water, warm or cold
  • 2. Lather them with enough soap to cover both hands
  • 3. Rub your hands palm to palm, then with fingers interlaced, then with the backs of your fingers in your opposite palms
  • 4. Rotate your thumbs in your clasped palms, then rotate your fingertips into your opposite palms
  • 5. Rinse well under clean, running water
  • 6. Dry thoroughly using a clean towel

Better hand washing can help keep you healthy

By knowing the facts about hand washing, and following this simple guide to washing your hands, you can help protect yourself and others from picking up germs, making sure we all stay healthy and happy in autumn and winter – and all year round.

Last updated Thursday 6 February 2020