Why Is Handwashing So Important?

SPRINGFIELD — Remember when you were a kid and your mother asked you if you had washed your hands before having dinner or after going to the bathroom?

There was a good reason for asking. Your mom probably wanted you to stay healthy and keep others healthy, too.

“Proper hand hygiene is the single most important means of preventing sickness and the spread of infection,” said Kristin Smith, an infection-control practitioner at Baystate Medical Center.

Unwashed hands are one of the quickest ways we can spread germs and cross-contaminate items around our home. The American Medical Assoc. offers several principles of hand awareness — wash your hands when they are dirty and before eating, do not cough or sneeze into your hands, and don’t put your fingers in your eyes, nose, or mouth.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), handwashing can prevent one in three diarrhea-related illnesses and one in five infections, including the flu and COVID-19.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of handwashing to reduce the spread of germs,” said Dr. Megan Gallagher of the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Medical Center, adding that this is especially true during flu season and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

How does handwashing prevent illness and infection? Simply put, soap removes germs from your hands. Washing your hands with soap is one of the most important public-health practices for slowing the COVID-19 pandemic and also protecting against many different types of infections.

Soap works not by killing germs, but by removing them from your hands. Lathering and scrubbing creates friction, which helps lift germs from your skin. The five steps to proper handwashing are:

• Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap;

• Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails;

• Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice;

• Rinse your hands well under clean, running water; and

• Dry your hands using a clean towel or air-dry them.

While washing your hands with soap and water is considered the best way to eliminate germs, the CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) if soap and water are not available. When using hand sanitizer, be sure to cover all surfaces, including the tops of hands and between the fingers. Remember, however, that sanitizers do not get rid of all types of germs, harmful chemicals, and grease.

By following these tips and practicing good hand hygiene, you can help keep yourself and others healthy.