“Did you wash your hands?” You heard that question from your mom all the time—and probably thought it just yesterday at work, after Dwight from Sales came back from the men’s room. With flu season coming up, it’s a darn good question. Perhaps a better question is: Did you wash your hands right?
The truth is that the simple act of washing your hands is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of disease, and doing it correctly is key. That’s why we dug through the latest journals and medical studies to uncover 20 facts that will change the way you think about handwashing. Not only will this advice make you think twice before you do, but following it will keep you, and the world, healthier, too. Read on—and to ensure your house is safe for you and the entire family, don’t miss this essential list of 100 Ways Your Home Could be Making You Sick.
You can scrub your hands clean, but it’s all for nothing if you touch the germ-covered faucet after you scrub. According to the NSF, the bathroom faucet handle ranks at the number six most germ-infested thing in American homes. Twenty-seven percent of all faucets in the study were found to have yeast, mold, and Staph, a group of bacteria that causes infections. That’s about the same number of germs found on toilet seats.
Recommendation: Turn off the faucet with a paper towel to reduce exposure. Then use that paper towel to open the door when you leave, too.
Despite the ever-present threat of a new superbug (or the everyday cold), some people can’t be bothered with hygiene. According to a study by the American Cleaning Institute and the American Society for Microbiology, 15 percent of adults were observed leaving the bathroom without washing their hands. Which means—to put it indelicately—they’re smearing everything they touch with their feces. (A Simpsons writer once joked that even the Queen of England sometimes gets poo on her hands, and it’s true.)
Recommendation: Put off your TPS report, kids or Netflix binge for the time it takes to scrub.
Remember how your mom used to say “wash your hands” before coming to dinner? Apparently not. A study by Michigan State University found that 33 percent of people didn’t use soap, and 10 percent didn’t wash at all. Not only that, but only 5 percent of us are washing our hands long enough to kill the germs that make us sick.
Recommendation: The CDC recommends scrubbing with soap for twenty seconds—the amount of time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song from start to finish twice. Lather the soap all over your hands, between your fingers, and under the nails. And do it, says the CDC:
- “Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick
- 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 garbage.”
It’s true—women really are cleaner than men. According to a study by Michigan State University, “women wash their hands significantly more often, use soap more often, and wash their hands somewhat longer than men.” Scientists aren’t sure why, but there is definitely a gender gap when it comes to hygiene.
Recommendation: Catch up men! The women will appreciate it, especially if one’s your significant other.
When you buy soap, you might be tempted to pick up the antibacterial product hoping it will keep you healthier. But according to a study by the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan, antibacterial soap is no more effective at preventing illness than washing regular soap and water. But that’s not all—antibacterial soaps actually help breed supergerms. The study found “demonstrated evidence of triclosan-adapted cross-resistance to antibiotics among different species of bacteria.”
Your kitchen towel is probably dirtier than it looks. A study by the University of Mauritius found that pathogens linked to food poisoning, like Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli, were found on kitchen towels after a month of normal use.
Recommendation: Don’t use your kitchen towel to dry your hands—you’ll only pick up new bacteria. Instead, use a paper towel or let your hands air dry.
The next time you’re in a public bathroom, don’t use the Dyson. Researchers have found that those fancy jet air dryers launch fecal matter and bacteria into the air. They actually suck up particles of poo floating around the bathroom after you flush and blow them right onto your hands. Even more unsettling, the study concluded “potentially pathogenic bacteria, including bacterial spores, may travel between rooms.” Ewwwww.
Recommendation: It’s paper of nothing for us.
Even though some people think air dryers are better for the environment, they don’t keep your hands cleaner. A study by the Mayo Clinic found that bacteria is more likely to stay on wet hands, so proper drying is essential.
Recommendation: The study’s author recommends paper towels in hospitals and other places where hygiene is vital, because they “cause less contamination of the washroom environment.”
Even the most rigorous handwashing will be worthless if you don’t dry your hands. Microbes breed in moisture, so leaving the bathroom with damp hands makes it easier for you get germs from the next thing you touch.
Recommendation: The Mayo Clinic found that paper towels are the best way to dry your hands without blowing germs around the room.
Mom always said “wash with soap and hot water”—but this is one time Mom wasn’t quite right. Despite the long-held believe that hot water is what gets rid of germs, cold water works just as well. A Vanderbilt University study found that cold water is fine as long as you scrub with soap, rinse, and dry your hands thoroughly. In fact, researchers said that in order to significantly reduce pathogens with hot water alone, you’d need to wash in boiling water above 212 degrees Fahrenheit. No thanks.
Recommendation: Choose a temperature that feels good, relaxes you. It’ll stimulate the reward center in your brain and make you more likely to do it again.
The science is clear: plain soap and water is more effective at reducing the number of microbes on your hands, according to a study by McGill University. There are some cases where a quick squirt of antibacterial gel is beneficial – it’s better than nothing. But researchers found that when it comes to removing an antibiotic-resistant bacterium responsible for severe diarrhea, “alcohol-based handrub was equivalent to no intervention.” So just go wash your hands.
Recommendation: “If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol,” recommends the CDC.
When you’re pre-heating your oven for a batch of homemade brownies, you might also be picking up some nasty bugs. The NSF found that 14% of stove knobs in household tested positive for Coliform bacteria (a family that includes E. Coli).
Recommendation: To avoid getting sick, remove knobs once a week and wash them in soapy water, and wash your hands after preparing food.
We know you love your furry friend—but their toys are a bacterial paradise. Since pets carry toys around in their mouths, they get covered in saliva, and that’s a breeding ground for the germs that get you sick. The NSF found that 57% of pet toys tested were found to have yeast and mold, and 24% carried Staph.
Recommendation: After you play ball with Bea, go wash your hands.
Sharing your life with a pet is wonderful. But sharing their Salmonella? Not so much. According to the CDC, when dog food is infected with the nasty bacteria, it can be transmitted to people who touch it.
Recommendation: The best way to prevent spreading the foodborne illness is thoroughly washing your hands after feeding pets or giving them treats. Same goes when you’re preparing chicken for yourself.
Beards might be stylish, but they’re also really dirty—and potentially hazardous to your health. According to a recent study that looked at bacteria on dog fur and men with beards, all of the men had high levels of microbes compared with only 23 of 30 dogs. Seven of the men were found to have microbes that could cause illness. So, if you’re touching your beard and then eating, you’re putting yourself at risk.
Recommendation: If you have a beard, wash your hands—and your facial hair—frequently, for the sake of yourself and those who kiss you.
Liquid soap dispensers might seem more sanitary than bar soap—especially the automatic dispensers you don’t have to touch. But one study in elementary school bathrooms showed that soap dispensers refilled from a large liquid soap bottle can lead to a 26-fold increase in bacteria on your hands compared with soap dispensers that use sealed refills.
Recommendation: After scrubbing, rinse the soap thoroughly from your hands, no matter where it’s from.
It sounds so simple, but the simple habit of washing your hands is an effective way to avoid devastating infections. According to a study published in Lancet, children under the age of five who washed their hands with soap and water had half the incidence of pneumonia, 53% fewer bouts of diarrhea, and 34% less impetigo, a highly-contagious skin infection.
Recommendation: Pneumonia isn’t all you’ll prevent. The CDC isn’t shy about listing all the ways hand washing can prevent infections:
- “People frequently touch their eyes, nose, and mouth without even realizing it. Germs can get into the body through the eyes, nose and mouth and make us sick.
- Germs from unwashed hands can get into foods and drinks while people prepare or consume them. Germs can multiply in some types of foods or drinks, under certain conditions, and make people sick.
- Germs from unwashed hands can be transferred to other objects, like handrails, table tops, or toys, and then transferred to another person’s hands.
- Removing germs through handwashing therefore helps prevent diarrhea and respiratory infections and may even help prevent skin and eye infections.”
As we said, washing with soap and water is best, but using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol will take care of many germs. But not if your hands are visibly dirty. According to a study published in the Journal of Water and Health, sanitizers are less effective when hands are heavily soiled or greasy.
Recommendation: If you can see the germy substance with your own two eyes, use soap to wash it off.
The next time you throw a load of dirty clothes in the wash, you might want to suds up your hands. Germs that make us sick can live on our clothing—especially damp, moist things like (ahem) jock straps or clothes soiled with baby poo.
Recommendation: While normal washing of the clothes will reduce the risk of illness, the NSF recommends washing your hands after coming into contact with contaminated clothing.
While it’s not always possible to avoid getting sick, washing your hands goes a long way. According to the NHS, cold viruses can survive on indoor surfaces for a week. Flu viruses can live on hard surfaces for up to 24 hours, but on tissues for only 15 minutes. And when someone with norovirus vomits, the virus is spread in droplets that hang in the air and land on surrounding surfaces.
Recommendation: Wash your hands regularly—especially after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, vomiting and using the bathroom. And to stay extra-healthy during flu season and beyond, don’t miss this essential list of the 50 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.