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The 5-step guide to washing your hands to get rid of germs

Netdoctor (UK) logo Netdoctor (UK) 17/03/2020 Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB), words by Jessica Rapana
a close up of a hand: Soap or sanitiser? Hot or cold water? Soap bar or liquid? All your hand hygiene questions, answered by experts. © Getty Soap or sanitiser? Hot or cold water? Soap bar or liquid? All your hand hygiene questions, answered by experts.

In the midst of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, hand sanitiser and antibacterial soap are – like loo paper – nearly impossible to find. While it is perfectly normal to be concerned about the virus, there are several things you can do to protect yourself and your family from infection, starting with hand hygiene.

How does coronavirus spread?

First thing’s first: coronavirus is thought to mainly spread when people are in close contact with one another (within about six feet).

It can occur when an infected person coughs or sneezes and respiratory droplets land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

How long can coronavirus survive on surfaces?

A new study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection found coronaviruses can survive on surfaces, such as metal, glass or plastic, for up to nine days. Researchers also found that we touch our faces with our own hands on average about 23 times per hour, so it’s easy to see why hand hygiene is so important.

a close up of an animal: How to wash your hands properly to kill germs © Ian Cuming - Getty Images How to wash your hands properly to kill germs

Only 5% of people wash their hands properly

While washing your hands should be your first line of defence (and a no-brainer), there is a right way to do it. A study from Michigan State University found that only five per cent of 3,749 people washed their hands long enough to kill germs after using the bathroom. Worse still, 33 per cent didn’t use soap and 10 per cent didn’t bother washing their hands at all.

Hand sanitiser vs hand soap

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is always best to wash your hands with soap and water where possible. However, in situations where you have no access to soap and water, an alcohol-based hand sanitiser should be used as an alternative.

Hot vs cold water

There is some debate as to whether hot water is better than cold water when it comes to getting rid of germs.

In a small study from Rutgers University in New Jersey, participants were exposed to a range of bacteria and washed their hands at various temperatures (15.5, 26 and 38 degrees) and with different types of soaps.

They found that neither the temperature nor the soap used made a difference to the amount of bacteria removed. However, this was a small study and the bacteria used was a strain of E.coli bacteria so we can't assume the result would be the same for coronaviruses.

Warm water is generally the most comfortable to use but if this is not available then use cold water. Washing your hands for long enough and thoroughly enough is more important than the temperature of the water.

How to wash your hands properly to kill germs © Getty Images How to wash your hands properly to kill germs

Soap bar vs liquid soap

According to the NHS, you are better off ditching the soap bar and switching to a liquid alternative in order to combat the spread of superbugs and reduce infection levels.

While, at a basic level, there is no difference between the two – both are made up of the same essential components – a bar of soap could potentially harbour bacteria on its surface which could be spread if multiple people use the same product.

How to wash your hands properly

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Centre, there are five steps you should follow to wash your hands properly:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water, turn off the tap and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds – if you need a timer, hum Happy Birthday from beginning to end, twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
a hand holding a baby: Holding hands © PeopleImages - Getty Images Holding hands

How to use hand sanitiser effectively

The effectiveness of hand sanitisers depends on the product itself, as well as how you use it. To be effective, it must be an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that contains at least 60 per cent alcohol. You can tell by looking at the product label.

To use hand sanitiser, follow these steps:

✔️ Apply the gel product to the palm of one hand (read the label to learn the correct amount).

✔️ Rub your hands together.

✔️ Liberally apply the gel over the surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry. This should take around 20 seconds.

When should you clean your hands

The CDC says there are key times when you should make sure you wash your hands:

  • Before, during and after preparing food.
  • Before eating food.
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound.
  • After using the toilet.
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet.
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
  • After touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste.
  • After handling pet food or pet treats.
  • After touching rubbish such as household waste.

The information in this story is accurate as of the publication date. While we are attempting to keep our content as up-to-date as possible, the situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop rapidly, so it's possible that some information and recommendations may have changed since publishing. For any concerns and latest advice, visit the World Health Organisation. If you're in the UK, the National Health Service can also provide useful information and support, while US users can contact the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last updated: 17-03-2020

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