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Effective Handwashing: Learn. Teach. Repeat.

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Soapy Hands

May 5 is World Hand Hygiene Day.

Of all the practical skills and lessons, learning to protect your health in a public health emergency or a natural disaster by teaching and practicing effective handwashing is the most important. Clean hands are essential to health, whether in an emergency or day-to-day life. Start making handwashing a practical skill today so that, no matter the occasion, everyone stays healthy.

Learn why handwashing and hand hygiene are important

Keeping hands clean is one of the most important things we can do to prevent the spread of germs, especially during a public health pandemic like Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Washing your hands is easy! It takes about 20 seconds to do and is one of the best ways to prevent spreading germs from person to person.

By washing your hands with soap at key times during the day, you prevent spreading germs that cause illness in the people around you, particularly those at high risk for COVID-19.

Here’s How

  1. Wet your hands with safe water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under the water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

What if soap and water are unavailable?

Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce the number of germs on them in most situations. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Take the following steps when using hand sanitizer:

  1. Apply the product on the palm of one hand (read the label to learn the correct amount to use).
  2. Rub your hands together.
  3. Rub the product over all surfaces of your hands, including in between fingers.
  4. Allow your hands to dry completely before touching anything.

Hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in many situations, but they do not eliminate all types of germs. Hand sanitizers can be an effective alternative to handwashing against COVID-19, but handwashing should always be the first choice if soap and water are available.

Keep Hand Sanitizers Away from Young Children

Swallowing hand sanitizers can cause alcohol poisoning. In fact, U.S. Poison Control Centers received nearly 85,000 calls related to hand sanitizer exposure in children from 2011 through 2015.

Parents, caregivers, and teachers should keep hand sanitizers away from children, especially children younger than 5 years old. Younger children are more likely to be attracted to hand sanitizers that are scented, brightly colored, or nicely packaged.

Learn more by visiting CDC’s Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer webpage.

Stay prepared

There are steps you can take to prepare before a public health emergency. One way to stay ahead is to build an emergency supply kit that includes personal hygiene items, such as:

Teach

Clean Hands GraphicYoung children learn by imitating the behaviors of adults in their lives. When you make handwashing and hygiene part of your routine, you’re setting an example for your children to follow.

How to teach toddlers to wash their hands

Adults can explain handwashing to young kids in a practical way and using language they can understand.

By the age of three, most children know the words to the “Happy Birthday” song, which takes 20 seconds to sing twice. So…

  1. Provide them with a step stool that allows them to reach the sink.
  2. Show them how to thoroughly wet their hands.
  3. Show them how to lather their hands, covering the front, back, and in between their fingers
  4. Sing it loud and proud. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Parker, happy birthday to you.” Then sing it one more time!
  5. Show them how to rinse their hands well under running water.
  6. Show them how to dry their hands using a clean towel.

Give frequent reminders

Building new habits takes time and commitment, but once children develop them, they carry those habits with them throughout life. At first, your child will need regular reminders to wash their hands properly and throughout the day, especially:

  • After using the toilet
  • Before eating
  • After touching pets
  • After playing outside
  • After coughing, sneezing, or blowing their nose

Repeat

Clean hands are essential to health, whether in an emergency or day-to-day life. Start making handwashing a practical skill today so that, no matter the occasion, everyone stays healthy.

Lead by Example

Be a preparedness role model for your family and your community. Modeling healthy habits like regularly washing your hands can inspire others in your home and community to do the same. You never know who’s watching, including your kids.

How Often is Often Enough?

Washing your hands often isn’t about sticking to a schedule or the number of times you do so each day. It’s about reducing the number of germs we carry after touching or coming into contact with something that may carry an increased number of germs. This is why handwashing during key times is critical.

However, regular handwashing outside of these key times is also important. During the COVID-19 pandemic, you can also consider cleaning hands:

  • After you have been in a public place and touched an item or surface that may be frequently touched by other people, such as door handles, tables, gas pumps, shopping carts, or electronic cashier registers/screens, etc.
  • Before touching our eyes, nose, or mouth because that’s how germs enter our bodies.

Additionally, be sure to clean and disinfect household surfaces daily to reduce germs. These actions can help protect you and your family in a pandemic like COVID-19.

More Information

Thanks in advance for your questions and comments on this Public Health Matters post. Please note that CDC does not give personal medical advice. If you are concerned you have a disease or condition, talk to your doctor.

Have a question for CDC? CDC-INFO (http://www.cdc.gov/cdc-info/index.html) offers live agents by phone and email to help you find the latest, reliable, and science-based health information on more than 750 health topics.

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4 comments on “Effective Handwashing: Learn. Teach. Repeat.”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    As a NICU nurse I wash my hands frequently throughout my 13hr shift. All nursing staff complete a full three-minute scrub from elbows to fingertips, at the beginning of their shift and if they leave the floor to another part of the hospital. We also teach parents and visitors how to complete a full three-minute scrub from fingertips to elbows. The NICU has two deep sinks at the entrance to the unit, along with foot pedals to turn water on and off. We use a surgical soap, that is attached to a foot pump as well, so no one is touching the handles. As simple as washing your hands throughout the day is, it is keeping up with the mindfulness that is hard for some people. We live busy lives, and we are constantly using our hands in the process. It just takes habit and reminding others around you to wash their hands.

    This blog is really helpful and informative when it is relating to hand washing and sanitizing. I, myself, use to be a Surgical Technologist (Sterile Surgeon’s Assistant), so hand washing or surgical scrubbing is essential in order to prevent the spread of bacteria to the patient. Not only is it important for the patient, but as a Scrub Nurse (RN), it is important to keep ourselves safe as well. Ensuring that we wash our hands immediately after coming in contact with blood, urine, feces, mucus, or needles sticks. Washing your hand thoroughly consist of ensure you wet you hands, ensuring that you have enough soap in your hands. washing for at least 20 seconds (or singing the birthday song during the wash) and rinsing. This is the most important way to decrease the amount of viruses and/or diseases that is spread via droplet or direct/indirect contact.

    It is mind blowing that it has taken a pandemic for people to realize how important hand washing or hand hygiene is. I can’t tell you how many times I have used public restrooms and physically watched woman leave without washing their hands. It literally takes 20 seconds to wash your hands with soap and water. It takes less than that to use hand sanitizer. Simple reminders like wet, lather and rinse while singing Happy Birthday are great ways to teach people about hand hygiene. One way to ensure people are practicing hand hygiene is maybe develop a buddy system. Having someone hold others accountable for washing their hands will help people become more compliant with hand hygiene.

    I wasn’t aware that there was a “Hand Washing Day”, I find this to endearing given the current pandemic. We have fewer and fewer short-cuts afforded to us due to this current crisis and we have even been told that we may have to resort to using soap and water on our computer keyboards which hardly sounds practical. Now more than ever I’m glad that people are encouraged to wash their hands. Are there other safe chemicals that you might recommend to help clean surfaces in the hospital that nurses may have access to?

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