Hand-washing: Do's and don'ts

Hand-washing is an easy way to prevent infection. Understand when to wash your hands, how to properly use hand sanitizer and how to get your children into the habit.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Frequent hand-washing is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading illness. Find out when and how to wash your hands properly.

When to wash your hands

As you touch people, surfaces and objects throughout the day, you accumulate germs on your hands. You can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose or mouth, or spread them to others. Although it's impossible to keep your hands germ-free, washing your hands frequently can help limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other microbes.

Always wash your hands before:

  • Preparing food or eating
  • Treating wounds or caring for a sick person
  • Inserting or removing contact lenses

Always wash your hands after:

  • Preparing food
  • Using the toilet, changing a diaper or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • Touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste
  • Blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • Treating wounds or caring for a sick person
  • Handling garbage
  • Handling pet food or pet treats

Also, wash your hands when they are visibly dirty.

How to wash your hands

It's generally best to wash your hands with soap and water. Over-the-counter antibacterial soaps are no more effective at killing germs than is regular soap.

Follow these steps:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water — either warm or cold.
  • Apply soap and lather well.
  • Rub your hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds. Remember to scrub all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails.
  • Rinse well.
  • Dry your hands with a clean towel or air-dry them.

How to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which don't require water, are an acceptable alternative when soap and water aren't available. If you use a hand sanitizer, make sure the product contains at least 60% alcohol. Follow these steps:

  • Apply the gel product to the palm of one hand. Check the label to find out the appropriate amount.
  • Rub your hands together.
  • Rub the gel over all the surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry.

Kids need clean hands, too

Help children stay healthy by encouraging them to wash their hands frequently. Wash your hands with your child to show him or her how it's done. To prevent rushing, suggest washing hands for as long as it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice. If your child can't reach the sink on his or her own, keep a step stool handy.

Be sure to supervise young children using alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Swallowing alcohol-based sanitizers can cause alcohol poisoning. Store the container safely away after use.

A simple way to stay healthy

Hand-washing offers great rewards in terms of preventing illness. Adopting this habit can play a major role in protecting your health.

Mayo Clinic Minute: How dirty are common surfaces?

Jason Howland: Most of us aren't aware we are doing it.

We touch our face between three to 30 times an hour.

The problem, says Dr. Gregory Poland, is what we touch beforehand is often riddled with germs.

Gregory Poland, M.D., Vaccine Research Group Mayo Clinic: Bathroom faucets, door handles, escalator rails, computer terminals, anything that is commonly touched by the public.

Jason Howland: But how germ-filled are common objects? Let's start with money.

Gregory Poland, M.D.: Bad but not highly transmissible.

Jason Howland: Touchscreens, devices, phones?

Gregory Poland, M.D.: Bad.

Jason Howland: Restaurant menus?

Gregory Poland, M.D.: Really bad.

Jason Howland: Doorknob handles?

Gregory Poland, M.D.: Really, really bad.

Jason Howland: What about our computer keyboards?

Gregory Poland, M.D.: Those have been shown over and over again to be really grossly contaminated.

Jason Howland: These common surfaces aren't just gross. They can be a vehicle to spread cold and flu viruses, and make you sick. Dr. Poland offers these suggestions.

Gregory Poland, M.D.: First, keep your hands out of your eyes, nose and mouth. Second is either wash your hands with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer.

Jason Howland: And make sure you get your annual flu vaccine.

For the Mayo Clinic News Network, I'm Jason Howland.

Mayo Clinic Minute: You're washing your hands all wrong

Ian Roth: Children often are taught at a young age to wash their hands — before eating and after using the restroom. It's an easy and effective way to stay healthy and avoid spreading disease.

But Dr. Gregory Poland, director of Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group says adults could do much better at the sink.

Gregory Poland, M.D.: People go to the bathroom and they run their fingers under the water. Well, that does nothing. And, then they grab the dirty faucet, and they touch the dirty handle on the way out of the bathroom.

Ian Roth: Dr. Poland says that in public washrooms there are often more bacteria on those faucets than in the toilet water. So, next time you’re at the sink…

Gregory Poland, M.D.: So you wash your hands while singing happy birthday to yourself, you get between the fingers, the fingertips, the thumb, you turn the water off with a paper towel, and you open the door to leave with a paper towel and dispose of the paper towel. That's how you wash your hands — ideally, with warm, soapy water.

Ian Roth: For the Mayo Clinic News Network, I’m Ian Roth.

April 01, 2020 See more In-depth

See also

  1. 3 ways to get closer to achieving your goals
  2. Make healthy habits stick
  3. 5 do's and don'ts for staying motivated
  4. 3 ways to avoid secondhand smoke
  5. 7 signs and symptoms not to ignore
  6. Energy management
  7. Animal bites: Do you need a tetanus shot?
  8. Are you doing everything you can to stay healthy?
  9. Belching, intestinal gas, gas pains and bloating
  10. Bone health tips
  11. Can COVID-19 (coronavirus) spread through food, water, surfaces and pets?
  12. Cancer-prevention strategies
  13. Cellphones and cancer
  14. Colon cancer screening
  15. Coronavirus safety tips for going out
  16. Coronavirus: What is it and how can I protect myself?
  17. Coronavirus travel advice
  18. Plastic surgery
  19. Herd immunity and coronavirus
  20. Long-term effects of COVID-19
  21. COVID-19: How much protection do face masks offer?
  22. COVID-19 (coronavirus): Quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing
  23. Do adults need shots?
  24. Don't save leftover pain pills
  25. Exercise: Check with your doctor
  26. Find meaning in the small things
  27. Flu Shot Prevents Heart Attack
  28. Functional fitness training
  29. Overcome obstacles to your goals
  30. Healthy holiday habits: How to get back on track
  31. Hand drying
  32. Healthy habits that boost happiness
  33. Healthy heart for life: Avoiding heart disease
  34. Heart attack prevention: Should I avoid secondhand smoke?
  35. Home Health Hazards
  36. Brown fat
  37. How social support spurs you
  38. Break the busy cycle
  39. How to take your pulse
  40. How to safely go to your doctor during the COVID-19 pandemic
  41. How to take your temperature
  42. How well do you wash your hands?
  43. Injury Season for Snow Blowers
  44. Investing in yourself
  45. Is antibacterial soap a do or a don't?
  46. Keep the focus on your long-term vision
  47. Liposuction alternatives
  48. Lost in Space
  49. Making progress towards your goals
  50. Mammogram guidelines: What are they?
  51. Make over your mindset to make time for your health
  52. Mayo Clinic Minute: You're washing your hands all wrong
  53. Mayo Clinic Minute: How dirty are common surfaces?
  54. Measles vaccine: Can I get the measles if I've already been vaccinated?
  55. Medical family tree
  56. Infographic: Organ Donation Donate Life
  57. Infographic: Paired Donation Chain
  58. Infographic: Pancreas Kidney Transplant
  59. Personal health records
  60. Personalize your wellness journey
  61. Stick to healthy-eating goals at social gatherings
  62. Posture: Align yourself for good health
  63. Posture check: Do you stand up straight?
  64. New Year's resolutions
  65. Safe outdoor activities during the COVID-19 pandemic
  66. Secondhand smoke
  67. Creating a wellness vision
  68. Sitting risks: How harmful is too much sitting?
  69. Good posture tips
  70. Back exercises
  71. Proper lifting techniques
  72. Stay healthy during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic
  73. Stop multitasking and focus
  74. Telemedicine online doctor visits
  75. Thirdhand smoke: What are the dangers?
  76. Want good health? Build a solid base
  77. The benefits of gratitude
  78. Video: Travel safely for medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic
  79. Travel Safety
  80. Triclosan
  81. Using if-then statements
  82. Vaccines for adults
  83. Fight coronavirus transmission at home
  84. What are superbugs?
  85. What are superbugs and how can I protect myself from infection?
  86. Air purifiers and smoke