Handwashing is often your first line of defense against infection. In order for handwashing to be most effective, you need to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds or longer.

Handwashing has always been an important defense against bacteria and viruses that can be transmitted to us through the things we touch.

Now, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s even more critical to wash hands regularly.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), can live on different surfaces for hours or even days (depending on the material).

Washing your hands properly can protect you from introducing the virus to your respiratory tract by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your face.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines are to scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. If you have trouble keeping track, try humming the entire “Happy Birthday” song twice before rinsing.

Rushing the process can result in cross contamination and increased sickness.

A 2018 report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that up to 97 percent of us wash our hands incorrectly.

Knowing when and how long to wash your hands makes a difference in how often you and your family get sick, especially while the new coronavirus is active.

In one workplace study, employees who were trained in handwashing and hand sanitation practices used 20 percent fewer sick days due to improved hygiene.

To protect yourself and others during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC recommends taking extra precautions and washing your hands in these situations:

  • after being in a public place
  • after touching a surface that may have been frequently touched by others (doorknobs, tables, handles, shopping carts, etc.)
  • before touching your face (eyes, nose, and mouth in particular)

In general, the CDC recommends you routinely wash your hands in the following situations:

  • before, during, and after cooking, especially when handling chicken, beef, pork, eggs, fish, or seafood
  • after changing a child’s diaper or helping them with toilet training
  • after using the bathroom
  • after caring for your pet, including feeding, walking, and petting
  • after sneezing, blowing your nose, or coughing
  • before and after administering first aid, including treating your own cut or wound
  • before and after eating
  • after handling garbage, recycling, and taking out the trash

It’s also wise to wash your hands and change your clothes after you get home from being out in public, and to wash your hands frequently during the workday.

According to the CDC, the average office worker’s desk is covered in more germs than a bathroom toilet seat.

You should also make sure to wash up after you’ve shaken hands at a social or work function, as hand-to-hand contact is a common way germs spread.

Here’s how to wash your hands effectively to help stop the spread of viruses and other germs:

  1. Start by turning on the water and getting your hands wet. A lot of people reach for soap as the first step, but wetting your hands first produces a better lather for cleaning.
  2. Apply liquid, bar, or powder soap to your wet hands.
  3. Lather up the soap, making sure to spread it up to your wrists, between your fingers, and on your nails and fingertips.
  4. Rub your hands together vigorously for at least 20 seconds.
  5. Rinse your hands well.
  6. Dry your hands thoroughly with a clean and dry cloth hand towel.

Do you wash longer if you’re cooking?

You should be mindful of bacteria while you’re preparing food. Wash your hands often, about once every couple of minutes. This doesn’t mean you need to increase the time you take to wash your hands, though.

If you’re following the right steps, 20 seconds should be enough time to thoroughly cleanse your hands of potentially harmful pathogens.

Food safety experts point out that if you don’t have a timer handy to count off 20 seconds, humming the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself twice in a row will roughly equal the right amount of time.

Since heat kills bacteria, it might seem safe to assume that warm or hot water would be better for washing your hands. But according to the experts, there’s no notable difference between the two.

The temperature you would need to heat the water to in order to kill pathogens would scald your skin.

In fact, studies have shown that there’s no clear evidence that washing your hands in warm water is better for getting rid of germs.

So, run the faucet at whatever temperature you’d like, keeping in mind that cold tap water saves on energy and water consumption.

When it comes to what soap is best to use, the answer might surprise you. So-called “antibacterial” soaps don’t necessarily kill more germs than regular soaps.

In fact, soaps that contain antibacterial ingredients might just be breeding stronger and more resilient forms of bacteria.

Use any liquid, powder, or bar soap you have available to wash your hands. If you’re washing your hands as frequently as you should be, you might want to look for a soap that’s moisturizing or marked as “gentle” on your skin to prevent drying out your hands.

Liquid soap may be more convenient if you’re keeping it on your counters and sinks.

If you run out of soap at home or find yourself in a public restroom with no soap, you should still wash your hands.

Follow the normal handwashing procedure outlined above and dry your hands well afterward.

In a 2011 study that compared handwashing with and without soap, researchers concluded that while soap is highly preferable (reducing E. coli bacteria to less than 8 percent on hands), washing without soap is still helpful (reducing E. coli bacteria to 23 percent on hands).

Can you use hand sanitizer instead of soap?

Hand sanitizers that contain more than 60 percent alcohol are effective at removing some harmful bacteria from your skin. However, they don’t help dissolve dirt and oils from your hands, and they won’t be as good at eliminating bacteria as washing your hands properly.

If you’re in a pinch at the doctor’s office, in a crowded train station, or stuck at your office desk, it’s good to have hand sanitizer around to get rid of possible contaminants.

But if you’re cooking, handling diapers, taking care of a sick loved one, or using the bathroom, washing your hands is definitely preferable.

Following the proper procedure for washing your hands will quickly become second nature. Scrubbing hands together for 20 to 30 seconds is enough time for the soap to work its magic and get rid of possible contaminating bacteria.

Try to be especially mindful of washing your hands during the COVID-19 pandemic, flu season, and when you’re taking care of people who may be immunocompromised.

Washing your hands is an easy, effective way to stop the spread of germs — and the best part is, it’s completely under your control.