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Handwashing: Protect Yourself From Illness

Washing your hands frequently is one of the best ways to protect yourself from getting sick and spreading germs to others. Germs are everywhere and can spread from person to person or from surfaces to people.

There’s a reason why parents tell their little ones to keep their fingers out of their mouth and to not touch their face.

“We have clear evidence that when we discuss handwashing and remind our communities about its importance, the rate of infection in the community goes down significantly,” says Carole Stipelman, MD, medical director at University of Utah Health Sugar House Health Center Pediatric Clinic.

How often should you wash your hands?

You should wash your hands every time you have contact with frequently touched areas and come into close contact with people who appear sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists key times to wash your hands:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the restroom
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After handling pet food or treats
  • After touching garbage

How do you wash your hands correctly?

  1. Wet your hands with clean water
  2. Lather your hands with soap—getting the back of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds
  4. Rinse your hands well
  5. Dry your hands thoroughly

Is hand sanitizer effective?

If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands, but they not get rid of all types of germs.

“Use hand sanitizer the same way you would wash your hands,” Stipelman says. “Make sure the hand sanitizer covers every surface of your hand and rub it in until your hands are completely dry.”

A word of caution: Young children should be supervised when using sanitizer. Many cases of alcohol poisoning and reports of consuming or licking it come in every year, Stipelman says. If a child does ingest hand sanitizer, the Poison Control Center can help.