The Art of Hand Washing Has Yet to Be Mastered

Hand Washing

Story at-a-glance -

  • Only 5 percent of people washed their hands properly, in a way that would kill infection and illness-causing germs, according to new research
  • Simply rinsing your hands with water, or giving a quick scrub with soap, is not enough to remove germs; you need to scrub all areas of your hands with plain soap for 15-20 seconds, then rinse under running water, to be effective
  • Over-washing your hands can lead to cracks in your skin that provide an easy entrance for disease-causing germs; it’s particularly important to avoid over-washing your hands in arid environments or winter
  • Actively building up and nurturing your immune system, and the makeup of beneficial microorganisms in your gut, works in tandem with hand washing to help you avoid getting sick

By Dr. Mercola

Hand washing is an incredibly simple way to reduce your exposure to potentially disease-causing germs and reduce your chances of getting sick.

It’s not the only factor, however, as the state of your immune system is actually what ultimately determines whether you stay healthy or get sick when you’re exposed to germs.

Regular hand washing is important, though, because it can drastically reduce the germs that get access to your body, especially when you do it at key times, such as before eating or touching your mouth, eyes and nose, and after using the restroom or visiting public areas.

The trick is, hand washing is only effective if it’s done correctly. This might sound obvious, but a new study found that most people are not really killing germs when they wash their hands.

95 Percent of People Are Not Washing Their Hands Correctly

In a study of more than 3,700 bathroom-goers in a college town, only 5 percent washed their hands properly, in a way that would kill infection and illness-causing germs.1

Among the rest, 33 percent didn’t even use soap and 10 percent neglected to wash their hands at all after using the restroom. Others did not wash their hands long enough to be effective at removing germs.

There were some trends noted, too. Older generations typically washed their hands more frequently, and for longer, than younger generations, and women tended to wash their hands more often, and more effectively, than men.

Still, the study suggests that a lot of people – the majority – are receiving a false sense of security when they wash their hands, believing them to be ‘clean’ when in fact they’ve done little to actually remove the germs…

How to Wash Your Hands Effectively in 5 Simple Steps

If you’re taking the time to wash your hands, you’ll want to be sure they are, in fact, clean when you’re done. Simply rinsing your hands with water, or giving a quick scrub with soap, is probably not enough.

To make sure you’re actually removing the germs when you wash your hands, follow these guidelines:

  1. Use warm, running water and a mild soap (avoid antibacterial soap)
  2. Work up a good lather, all the way up to your wrists, scrubbing for at least 15 or 20 seconds (most people only wash for about 6 seconds)
  3. Make sure you cover all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers, and around and below your fingernails
  4. Rinse thoroughly under running water
  5. In public places, use a paper towel to open the door as a protection from germs that the handles may harbor

Too Much Hand Washing Can be Harmful… Proper Balance Is Key

You’re exposed to germs just about every moment of your life. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A child raised in an environment devoid of dirt and germs, and who is given antibiotics that kill off all of the bacteria in his gut, is not able to build up natural resistance to disease, and becomes vulnerable to illnesses later in life.

This theory, known as the hygiene hypothesis, is likely one reason why many allergies and immune system diseases have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled in the last few decades. Your immune system needs regular exposure to “dirt” and germs to stay healthy.

If you're healthy, exposure to bacteria and viruses may serve as "natural vaccines" that strengthen your immune system and provide long-lasting immunity against disease. If you don’t get this healthy exposure to germs in your environment, it may end up making you sick.

So the solution to staying healthy is not to turn into a modern-day Howard Hughes where you avoid all public interactions at any cost or disinfect your environment obsessively. What you want, ideally, is a healthy balance.

You certainly don’t want to expose yourself to disease-causing germs unnecessarily, and this is why it makes sense to wash your hands. But you needn’t fear all germs, as some germ exposure is inevitable, and likely even good for you in the long run.

You can count on your immune system to protect you, but don't unnecessarily jeopardize yourself. Without proper hygiene, one cannot achieve optimal health. Overwashing and excessive exposure to disinfectants can likewise be a detriment. It seems moderation is again the key.

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Beware of Washing Your Hands Too Often in Arid Environments or Winter

Your skin is one of your primary defenses against bacteria, so resist the urge to become obsessive about washing your hands. If you wash them too harshly, too frequently, you can extract many of the protective oils in your skin, which can cause your skin to crack and potentially even bleed. This is completely counterproductive and only invites trouble…

While it’s rare for infectious agents on your skin to cause a problem (it is typically only an issue when you transfer that to your nose, mouth or an open wound like cracked skin), obsessive-compulsive washing can increase your risk of getting sick by providing an entryway for potentially dangerous pathogens through the cracked skin. This is especially true in the winter or in dry environments where humidity levels frequently drop below 10 percent. In the summer or in humid environments, this is less of an issue, but no matter where you live, be sure that your hand washing is not irritating your skin, leading to dry, cracked areas that are a perfect entryway for germs.

Why Antibacterial Soap Is Not Necessary

Another major misconception about hand washing is that you need to use antibacterial soap. These types of disinfectants are extremely useful in a hospital setting, but they can do far more harm than good when used on a daily basis in your home.

Studies have repeatedly shown that regular soap is just as effective (sometimes even more effective) than antimicrobial soap for the prevention of infectious diseases. Furthermore, antimicrobials like triclosan, commonly used in antibacterial soap, are linked to hormone disruption, heart disease and heart failure. Using triclosan-containing products may actually increase your chances of contracting an infection if you already have a chronic disease, promotes the emergence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and contaminates waterways and harms wildlife.

There’s no reason to expose yourself to antimicrobials like triclosan, as plain soap and water works just as well. In one study, published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine,2 people who used antibacterial soaps and cleansers developed a cough, runny nose, sore throat, fever, vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms just as often as people who used products that did not contain antibacterial ingredients.

The researchers pointed out that most of the symptoms experienced by the study participants are typically caused by viruses, which the antibacterial soaps won’t protect against anyway. And for the symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea, which may be caused by bacteria, the people who used regular soaps had no greater risk than those who used antibacterial products. So when washing your hands, stick with good old-fashioned non-antibacterial soap and water.

A Healthy Immune System Is Your ‘Secret Weapon’ to Avoid Getting Sick

There’s a common misconception that if you’re exposed to a germ, such as a flu virus, and it enters your body, you’re going to get sick. But simply being exposed to a virus or bacteria does not dictate whether or not you’ll get sick – the state of your immune system determines that. In one study, when 17 people were infected with a flu virus, only half of them got sick.3 The researchers found changes in blood took place 36 hours before flu symptoms showed up, and everyone had an immune response, regardless of whether or not they felt sick. But the immune responses were quite different…

In symptomatic participants, the immune response included antiviral and inflammatory responses that may be related to virus-induced oxidative stress. But in the non-symptomatic participants, these responses were tightly regulated. The asymptomatic group also had elevated expression of genes that function in antioxidant responses and cell-mediated responses.

The bottom line is, in half of the group their immune systems were able to effectively fight off the virus so they did not experience flu symptoms. So while hand washing is important, you’ll also want to be sure you are actively building up and nurturing your immune system to ‘catch’ any germs that do invade your body. How do you do this?

Top Lifestyle Tips for Staying Healthy

Healthy eating, regular stress relief, exercise, and proper sleep are the foundations of a healthy immune system. In particular, increasing your intake of fermented foods will nourish the healthful microorganisms in your gut (where about 80 percent of your immune system resides), allowing it to effectively fight off pathogenic microbes that find their way into your body.

The culturing process produces beneficial microbes that are extremely important for your health as they help balance your intestinal flora and produce a wide range of metabolic byproducts that benefit your health, e.g. lipoic acid, beta-glucans, infection-killing bacteriocins, etc. If you do not regularly consume traditionally fermented foods, a high-quality probiotic supplement will provide similar benefits. Along with eating naturally fermented foods and/or taking a high-quality supplement, it's essential that you avoid sugar, including fructose.

Sugar feeds the growth of pathogenic bacteria, yeast, and fungi in your gut, which may actually harm you more than its adverse impact on insulin resistance. One of the major results of eating a healthy diet like the one described in my nutrition plan is that you cause your beneficial gut bacteria to flourish, and they secondarily perform the real "magic" of restoring your health and protecting you from the pathogenic germs that you will inevitably come across in your day-to-day life.