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 with soap and water frequently can help limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other microbes.

Always wash your hands before and after:

  • Preparing and eating food
  • Treating wounds or caring for a sick person
  • Touching an item or surface that is frequently touched by other people, such as door handles, gas pumps or shopping carts
  • Entering or leaving a public place
  • Inserting or removing contact lenses

Always wash your hands after:

  • 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
  • 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.

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Dec. 10, 2021 See more In-depth

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