The stats are nothing short of gross. As little as five percent of restaurant employees wash their hands as frequently as guidelines recommendHand washing frequencies and procedures used in retail food services. Strohbehn, C., Sneed, J., Paez, P., et al. Hotel, Restaurant and institution Management Program, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. Journal of Food Protection, 2008 Aug;71(8):1641-50.. Just two thirds of doctors and health care professionals wash their hands often enough. And only one third of advanced medical students even know when they ought to be washing their hands. But these scummy statistics don’t change the facts: Hand-washing may be one of the best ways to prevent sickness.

Washed Out — Why It Matters

Basically, hand-washing kills bacteria and keeps us healthier. After touching doorknobs and railings, almost half of subjects in one study had bacteria on their hands of potential fecal origin— ew. But rinsing with water cut that number in half, and adding soap left just eight percent of participants dirty. (Phew!)The effect of handwashing with water or soap on bacterial contamination of hands. Burton, M., Cobb, E., Donachie, P., et al. Department of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London, UK. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2011 Jan;8(1):97-104. Epub 2011 Jan 6.. Plus, scrubbing hands before digging in gets rid of bacteria that could potentially cause food poisoningEffect of hand wash agents on controlling the transmission of pathogenic bacteria from hands to food. Fischler, G.E., Fuls, J.L., Dail, E.W., et alDial Center for Innovation, Microbiology Department, The Dial Corporation, 15101 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, Arizona. Journal of Food Protection, 2007 Dec;70(12):2873-7..

Lathering up can also help protect against other kinds of health issues. College students who washed their hands regularly were sick less often and missed fewer classes than their peers who didn’t wash as often.The effect of hand hygiene on illness rate among students in university residence halls. White, C., Kolble, R., Carlson, R., et al. University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA. American Journal of Infection Control, 2003 Oct;31(6):364-70.. (So that’s a reason for the college crowd not to wash up, right?) And hand washing could even help prevent potential life-threatening diseases. A study of squatter neighborhoods in Pakistan found hand-washing reduced the incidence of illnesses like pneumonia and diarrhea 50 percentEffect of handwashing on child health: a randomised controlled trial. Luby, S.P., Agboatwalla, M., Feikin, D.R., et al. Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, National Centers for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA. Lancet, 2005 Jul 16-22;366(9481):225-33..

Squeaky Clean — The Answer/Debate

While we always encourage staying squeaky clean, there are certain times when it’s essential to wash, according to experts:

  • Before, during, and after prepping food and immediately before chowing down.
  • After using the bathroom.
  • After playing with Fido or picking up his business.
  • After coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. And before touching the eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • After handling trash.
  • Before and after treating wounds or taking care of someone who’s sick.

The next step is how to work up a good lather:

  • Wet hands— hot or cold water works.
  • Soap up. Keep scrubbing for about 20 seconds, getting all the nooks and crannies.
  • Rinse well.
  • Dry hands with a clean cloth or paper towel and then turn off the sink with the towel, if possible.

Last, let’s talk products. Antimicrobial and plain soap may be equally effective for getting rid of bacteria on hands, but using antibacterial products could lead to resistant bacteriaShort- and long-term effects of handwashing with antimicrobial or plain soap in the community. Larson, E., Aiello, A., Lee, L.V., et al. Schools of Nursing and Public Health, Columbia University, New York, NY. Journal of Community Health, 2003 Apr;28(2):139-50.. Frequent hand-washing can also result in dry, itchy skin (at least there’s no fecal matter), so researchers recommend opting for post-wash moisturizers to keep hands silky smoothSkin reactions related to hand hygiene and selection of hand hygiene products. Larson, E., Girard, R., Pessoa-Silva, C.L., et al. School of Nursing, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA. American Journal of Infection Control, 2006 Dec;34(10):627-35..

The Takeaway

Hand-washing can be a big factor in preventing sickness. A little soap and water gets rid of a lot of bacteria on hands, but antibacterial products might create resistant bacteria. Use moisturizer so hands don’t get dry and flaky from all that washing.

How often do you wash your hands? Which products do you use? Tell us in the comments below!