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:


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


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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10 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?

    This blog was very informative and I really appreciate the way information was presented. I always express that education is one of the most important factors in prevention. As an RN, I educate all my patients on proper hand hygiene, but with the COVID19 pandemic, it is even more imperative that we provide education on hand hygiene. The blog gave great suggestions on how to teach toddlers about hand hygiene. If you have children or been around them, you know that almost any and everything goes into the mouth. As well as they feel a need to touch everything in sight. I especially enjoyed the recommendation for the emergency supply kit. This pandemic is new for us all, so any information that can be given to help with the prevention or spread is great news! Nurses have a responsibility as well to make sure not only to educate our patients but to also be diligent with our own hand hygiene. As healthcare professionals, we come into close contact with many people, one after another. To ensure we don’t spread germs or viruses we also MUST wash and/or sanitize our hands as often as possible.

    As a Registered Nurse, I wash my hands on the regular. It seems like every minute. I was trained to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star while washing your hands. Regular handwashing is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick, and prevent the spread of germs. As we are all facing this pandemic it is imperative that we keep up with proper handwashing techniques. It’s only a two-minute task with a little friction. It is especially important to wash your hands frequently with soap and water while scrubbing the palms, back of hands, in-between fingers, and underneath the fingernails. It’s that simple if you’re not able to use soap and water wash your hand with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60 alcohol is just as effective. Love this Blog!!!

    I’ve been a nurse for many years and it is my opinion that handwashing is the most basic but safest measure a person whether medical or not can do that will help prevent the spread of diseases and germs. I know sometimes it seems I just need to quickly do something for this or that patient but it is our responsibility to make sure we take the time to wash our hands before and after touching our patients. If we do something and we get things on us then we need to stop and wash our hands effectively so that we don’t spread germs to another person or take them home with us to our families. As a Chronic Care Dialysis Nurse I wash my hands a lot during the day. I will use alcohol based hand sanitizer if I’m using my computer or going between pods to use the computers for documenting but when patient care is involved I wash my hand with soap and water for at least 30 seconds and so with enough friction to kill anything that may be on them.

    This blog is very educational and enlightening as it provided me with some surprising information that I didn’t know such as there is a day specifically declared “Handwashing Day”. It is unfortunate that it has taken a pandemic for people to see the importance of good hand hygiene. When it comes to hand sanitizer, I see where people are using it to replace handwashing, there continues to be the need to educate that hand sanitizer does not replace washing your hands with soap and water. Handwashing is the easiest and most effective way to prevent the spread of germs. It takes only 20 seconds to prevent the spread of a disease that can kill you or someone you love.

    It is important for the CDC to remind the public of the effectiveness of correct handwashing techniques. This post originated in May of 2020 which was in the prime of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people were trying to figure out ways to prevent contracting the virus which was a great time to educate on hand hygiene. As a nurse, I learned that the first line of defense for infection prevention includes hand hygiene. It is very important to take this easy measure to prevent the spread of disease. Working in the hospital setting it is easy to spread germs going from room to room. My hospital has started a hand hygiene initiative to encourage and remind healthcare providers to clean their hands before and after stepping into a patient’s room. We have created a friendly reminder statement “all hands on deck” to remind each other to wash their hands.  

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Page last reviewed: June 1, 2020
Page last updated: June 1, 2020