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Cleaning Your Hands: Hand Washing and Hand Sanitizers
Our hands are remarkable tools. We’re usually not aware of how often we use our hands throughout the day: preparing food, feeding our children, wiping runny noses, changing diapers, going to the bathroom, opening doors, handling money, shaking hands, rubbing our eyes, hugging the family pet, picking up the phone, typing at the computer, cleaning spills, etc. And we don’t see the microscopic germs we pick up on our hands and transfer from them every time we touch ourselves or other people, objects and surfaces. Unfortunately, this is how we spread many common illnesses including vomiting, diarrhea, colds, flu and skin infections.

Health experts have found that cleaning your hands with soap and water and/or hand sanitizers is the best way to reduce the spread of illnesses. Cleaning your hands and teaching your children to clean theirs at the proper times and with the proper technique can keep the whole family healthier.

Hand Washing

Washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to remove germs from them. Scrubbing with soap and rinsing with water loosens and washes away the germs. Although antibacterial soaps have become popular, they do not clean your hands any better than regular soap. It’s also good to avoid antibacterial soaps because bacteria may become resistant to antibacterials and harder to kill in the future.

When to wash your hands

It’s impossible to keep our hands germ-free at all times, but there are certain times when it’s particularly important to clean them. Wash your hands and make sure your children wash their hands before:

  • Preparing or handling food, eating and feeding your children

  • Caring for a sick or injured person
And after:

  • Blowing your nose, sneezing or coughing into your hand or wiping your child’s nose
  • Using the bathroom, changing a diaper or helping your child in the bathroom

  • Handling raw meat, poultry or fish

  • Caring for someone who is sick or injured
  • Touching animals or animal waste

  • Playing outdoors, cleaning up and handling garbage


How to wash your hands
  • Wet your hands with running water and apply liquid or clean bar soap
  • .
  • Rub your hands together to lather them. Scrub all the surfaces including the front and back of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and under your nails. Scrub for at least 10 seconds.

  • Rinse well with running water.

  • Dry your hands with a clean towel, disposable paper towel or air dryer.
  • If possible, turn off the faucet with a disposable towel or your elbow. This helps you avoid contaminating your clean hands from the faucet you touched when your hands were dirty.


Hand Sanitizers

When soap and water is not available, alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel is the next best way to clean your hands. Studies have found that hand sanitizers are effective in reducing the spread of illnesses in hospital and clinics, schools, childcare settings and households. The hand sanitizer gel must contain between 60 and 95 percent alcohol, (ethanol or isopropanol) to be effective. Do not use products with only 40 percent alcohol.

Rather than loosening up and washing away the germs, the alcohol kills the germs on contact. But if you can see dirt on your hands, germs can hide in the dirt and won’t be killed by the hand sanitizer, so you’ll need to wash off the dirt and germs with soap and water to make sure they’re clean.

How to use hand sanitizers
  • Apply a dime-sized amount of the gel to the palm of your hand
  • .
  • Rub your hands together, covering all surfaces, including the front and back, wrists and between your fingers. Rub until they’re dry
  • .

Remember that the alcohol in hand sanitizer can be poisonous to young children, so store the product out of kids’ reach.

Teach your children about hand washing

The earlier you start teaching your children about hand washing, the easier it is for them to make it a natural part of their daily lives. Make sure you set a good example by always washing your hands and showing them when and how to do it. For babies, wash their hands every time after you change their diapers. For toddlers, make hand-washing fun by singing songs such as “A-B-C” and “Row, row, row your boat.” These songs last for the 10 seconds they need to scrub their hands. Make sure your children’s childcare and preschool also follow good hand-washing practices. Watch to see that teachers wash their hands after diapering children and before preparing food, and that they have children wash their hands after using the toilet and playing outdoors, and before eating.

Remember that keeping our hands clean by hand washing and using hand sanitizers can help everyone stay healthier.

Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician