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Protect yourself with proper hand washing

Tips to avoid getting sick

This article was last updated on Aug. 18, 2020. 

During cold and flu season, and any time of the year, frequent hand washing is the single most important thing people can do to avoid getting sick. In addition to social distancing and wearing a mask, hand washing is a way to limit the spread of  COVID-19. Just by washing your hands often, you can help limit the spread of germs that can happen when someone touches a contaminated surface and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth.

Washing your hands may seem like a no-brainer, but studies show that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, while 92 percent of Americans say it's important to wash their hands after using the restroom External Site, research shows that only 66 percent actually do.

Even if you’re good about washing your hands often, you might be surprised to find out it may not be nearly enough. Plus, did you know there’s a “right” way to wash your hands? Read on to find the steps you can take (and teach your children) to keep your hands clean and help you stay as healthy as possible. 

How often should I wash my hands?

Washing your hands after you use the restroom is an obvious one. But, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a list of 10  key times you are likely to get and spread germs External Site. Some of these include before, during and after preparing food, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, and after touching the garbage. You should also wash if you’ve been in a public place and touched a surface that’s also touched by others. For example, door handles, shopping carts and gas pumps.

If you're wondering whether or not you need antibacterial soap to get your hands clean, the answer is no. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there isn’t enough science External Site to show that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soaps are better at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water. 

Seven easy steps to properly wash your hands

Every time you lather up, follow these seven easy steps to make the most of your time at the sink.

  1. Wet your hands with warm water
  2. Use soap
  3. Rub hands together and wash your fingers and the tops and bottoms of your hands
  4. Wash for 20 seconds — the amount of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" two times
  5. Rinse hands under running water
  6. Dry hands
  7. Use paper towel to turn off faucet

What if I don’t have easy access to soap and water?

While washing your hands with warm soapy water is the preferred method of cleaning your hands External Site, according to the CDC, you can also use alcohol-based sanitizers to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. When choosing a hand sanitizer, be sure it includes at least 60 percent alcohol.

Also, be aware that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently found issues with certain hand sanitizers External Site, saying that some don’t have enough active ingredients and others include methanol and/or 1-propanol, substances that can be toxic when swallowed or absorbed through the skin. You can find a list of impacted hand sanitizers on the FDA website External Site.

Hand sanitizer and young children

The use of hand sanitizer has increased amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of this increased use, there has also been an uptick in calls to the National Poison Data System about children unintentionally ingesting hand sanitizer — a 46 percent increase Opens PDF from the same period of time last year. Even swallowing a small amount of hand sanitizer can cause alcohol poisoning in children External Site, which can lead to sleepiness, low blood sugar, seizures and coma. It can also be fatal if enough alcohol is ingested.

The American Academy of Pediatrics External Site urges parents to keep hand sanitizer out of children’s reach External Site. If you use hand sanitizer with children five years of age and younger, they should be supervised by an adult.

Even with a great hand washing routine and taking steps to protect yourself against illness, you may still end up getting sick. If you find yourself in that situation, learn more about the best places to go to get the care you need.