Why is hand washing necessary?

Do you remember your parents and grandparents always nagging you to “wash your hands?” Well, I certainly do! And, what a chore it was too, well worth an eye roll or two …

Many years later, as a first-year undergraduate at University College London Medical School at the London Foot Hospital we had to wash our hands before every clinical session and in between patients … for minutes at a time, while being watched! I even remember having an exam on HAND WASHING (although the real subject was obviously preventing the spread of infections).

So, why is it so important to wash our hands frequently and thoroughly?

The ugly truth is that we touch numerous objects and surfaces which have often been touched by other people, sneezed on by other people and spoken over (and therefore spat on!) by other people. We have no control over what we have just picked up on our hands. Bacteria and viruses end up on our hands, as well as tiny particles of faeces (both human and animal) and parasite eggs. We then carry on touching glasses, handles, wallets, cash, shaking hands, touching others, handling food, thereby passing all these nasty microbes directly onto ourselves when we inadvertently touch our mouths, noses and eyes.

The simplest solution to break the chain of infection is to wash your hands! It is the one element of germ transmission that we can control and is both simple and cheap. Not only does hand-washing remove the germs from our hands, but it also helps to prevent infections, such as diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses, and may even help prevent skin and eye infections.

How to do it properly?

1. Wet your hands

Why? To rinse off most of the contamination and help to lather up the soap. Interestingly enough, the temperature of the water does not appear to affect microbe removal.

2. Apply soap and lather up

Why? Lathering and scrubbing hands creates friction, which in turn helps to lift dirt, grease and microbes away from the skin. Microbes are present all over the hands, with particularly high levels found under the nails, so the entire hand needs to be scrubbed thoroughly. When we wash our hands with soap, the thin lipid (fat) envelope protecting the microbe breaks up and kills the virus.

3. Keep rubbing for 20 seconds

Why? About one in four people simply wets their hands without using soap – a move hygiene researchers call the “splash and dash.” Evidence suggests that washing our hands for about 15 to 30 seconds removes more germs than when we wash them for a shorter period. Trust the science and keep on washing!

4. Rinse

Why? Soap and friction help lift dirt, grease and microbes (including disease-causing germs) from the skin so that they can then be rinsed off our hands. What’s more, rinsing the soap away also minimises the likelihood of skin irritation.

5. Dry your hands

Why? Germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands Therefore, your hands should always be dried thoroughly after washing them. Using a clean towel, a single-use paper towel or air-drying your hands are generally the best options.