• Washing your hands is one of the best ways to avoid catching or spreading an infection like the common cold, the flu, or COVID-19.
  • You’ll reap the biggest benefits by washing regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Hand sanitizer isn’t a sub for handwashing, but it’s the next best option when soap and water aren’t available.

Q: What’s the easiest way to reduce your risk for catching an infection, from a run of the mill cold to the flu to COVID-19?

A: Wash. Your. Hands.

Lathering up with soap and water on the reg, especially at key points throughout your day, is one of the most effective ways to avoid getting sick — and to keep from spreading germs to others.

That’s because illness-causing viruses and bacteria are often spread by touching contaminated objects.

And once the germs are on your hands, all it takes to potentially infect yourself is touching your face. Which most of us do an average of 23 times an hour, FYI. Touch another surface or someone else, and you could easily transfer your germs to others, too.

Handwashing saves the day by clearing away any illness-causing bugs that might be hanging out on your mitts before they can infect you or be spread to others.

What’s more, you’ll reap the maximum benefits by washing right — and washing at the right times. Here’s everything you need to know to perfect your handwashing technique and be an infection-fighting superstar.

Good news: You don’t need anything fancy to wash your hands.

Despite the potential allure of dedicated antibacterial soaps, they’re not needed for stopping the spread of germs in most situations — plain soap works just fine, people. (The exception? If you’re a professional in a health care setting.)

There’s no need to worry about waiting for the water to get hot either. Any temperature will do the job.

The only thing you really need to remember is that you’ve gotta scrub for at least 20 seconds. That’s how long it takes to ensure the germs are lifted off your skin, including all the nooks and crannies, like between your fingers and under your nails.

But if you want to get a little more specific, the CDC breaks the whole handwashing thing down step-by-step:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water, then turn off the tap. You’ll save water and might avoid transferring some germs to the faucet.
  2. Soap up your hands and scrub. Again, any soap works here — it doesn’t have to be the antibacterial stuff. Rub your hands together to create a nice lather, remembering to get the backs of your hands, between your fingers, your wrists, and under your nails. It’s all the friction that helps the soap lift germs and dirt off your skin.
  3. Keep scrubbing, and scrubbing, and scrubbing… for at least 20 seconds. Going this long will remove more germs than if you washed for shorter. You could just slowly count to 20, but if you’re up for some fun, singing “Happy Birthday” twice is also the right amount of time.
  4. Rinse your hands with clean, running water. Once the germs and dirt have been lifted up off your skin, rinsing easily washes them away.
  5. Dry your hands. A clean towel or air-drying both get the job done.

In general, handwashing should happen around instances where you’re likely to come into contact with or spread germs. Though during COVID-19, it’s worth being extra vigilant.

That means you should wash your hands before:

  • preparing food
  • eating food
  • caring for someone who is sick, especially someone who’s vomiting or has diarrhea
  • treating a cut or wound
  • in the wake of COVID-19, anytime before touching your eyes, nose, or mouth

You should also wash your hands after:

  • preparing food (especially after handling raw meat, poultry, eggs, or seafood)
  • going to the bathroom, changing a diaper, or helping a child go to the bathroom
  • blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • caring for someone who is sick, especially someone who’s vomiting or has diarrhea
  • treating a cut or wound
  • touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste (yes, including your own pet
  • touching garbage
  • wearing nitrile or latex gloves, since germs on the gloves can spread to your hands when you take the gloves off
  • in the wake of COVID-19, after spending time in a public place or touching a high-traffic surface, like a shopping cart, door handle, gas pump, table, or touch screen

FDA Notice

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced recalls of several hand sanitizers due to the potential presence of methanol.

Methanol is a toxic alcohol that can have adverse effects, such as nausea, vomiting, or headache, when a significant amount is used on the skin. More serious effects, such as blindness, seizures, or damage to the nervous system, can occur if methanol is ingested. Drinking hand sanitizer containing methanol, either accidentally or purposely, can be fatal. See here for more information on how to spot safe hand sanitizers.

If you purchased any hand sanitizer containing methanol, you should stop using it immediately. Return it to the store where you purchased it, if possible. If you experienced any adverse effects from using it, you should call your healthcare provider. If your symptoms are life threatening, call emergency medical services immediately.

Repeat after us: Hand sanitizer isn’t a substitute for handwashing.

That said, it’s useful when you’re out and about and don’t have fast access to soap and water — especially during a pandemic — since it can quickly kill off a good amount (but not all!) of the germs on your hands.

Like when washing your hands, just be sure to stick with a few key rules: Use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol (the alcohol content will be listed on the label), apply enough sanitizer to coat the entire surface of your hands, and rub well until your hands are dry.

As for homemade hand sanitizers? Unless they’re made just right and in sterile conditions, they’re not going to be as effective as a store-bought sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. So you shouldn’t count on them to get your hands clean unless you know for sure you’ve made it correctly.