Touch is one of the ways people interact with the world around them. If you tried to keep track of how many times you touched something, including your own nose, eyes, or mouth, you’d probably give up counting within a few minutes.

As natural as it may be, it’s through touch that hands become exposed to thousands of harmful germs and bacteria each day. Proper hand-washing eliminates most of these microorganisms, keeping you and others healthier.

Washing your hands properly with soap and running water can stave off illnesses that affect healthy people as well as those with weakened immune systems.

These illnesses range from respiratory infections such as pneumonia to gastric infections that cause diarrhea. Many of these conditions can be fatal to some, such as babies and children. You can pass these germs on, even if you’re not sick yourself.

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Washing your hands with plain soap and water has been found to reduce more bacteria than washing with water alone. Antibacterial soap may not be necessary to use every day at home outside of healthcare settings. Regular soap and water can be effective.

Steps for washing hands effectively include:

  1. Rinse your hands under running water at a comfortable temperature. Warm water isn’t more effective than cold water at killing germs.
  2. Apply the type of soap you like best. Soaps to try include liquid formulas, foams, and those with moisturizers added.
  3. Work up a lather for half a minute or longer. Make sure to spread the lather on all parts of your hands and wrists, including under your fingernails and between your fingers.
  4. Rinse and dry thoroughly.
  5. If you’re using a public bathroom, use a paper towel both to turn off the faucet and turn the door handle when exiting.

Frequent hand-washing is a personal hygiene habit you should use every day. Times to wash your hands include:

For food prep and eating

  • before, during, and after preparing or cooking food, which is especially important if you touch raw chicken, eggs, meat or fish
  • before eating or drinking

For personal care, intimate activities, and first aid

  • after toileting, both at home or in a public restroom
  • after changing a baby’s diaper or helping a small child use the toilet
  • before changing contact lenses
  • after blowing your nose or coughing, especially if you’re sick
  • before taking medications, such as pills or eye drops
  • after sexual or intimate activity
  • before treating a burn or wound, either on yourself or someone else
  • after tending to a person who is ill

High-traffic places and dirty objects

  • before and after utilizing public transportation, especially if you hold onto the railings on buses and subways
  • after handling money or receipts
  • after handling household or commercial garbage
  • after coming into contact with visibly dirty surfaces, or when your hands are visibly dirty

Healthcare and other settings

  • before and after treating patients if you’re a medical professional such as a doctor, x-ray technician, or chiropractor
  • before and after treating clients if you’re a cosmetologist, beautician, tattoo artist, or aesthetician
  • before and after entering a hospital, doctor’s office, nursing home, or other type of medical facility

Pet care

  • after feeding your pet, especially if they eat raw food
  • after walking your dog or handling animal waste

Hand sanitizers are available as wipes and in gel form. They’re a convenient on-the-go option to use when soap and running water aren’t readily available.

They shouldn’t, however, be used regularly instead of hand-washing, since soap and water is more appropriate for regularly removing dirt, debris, and harmful germs than hand sanitizers.

Using hand sanitizers too frequently can also reduce the number of helpful bacteria on your hands and skin.

Make the most of hand sanitizer by keeping these things in mind:

  • Use alcohol-based products. It’s important to check ingredients and to use a sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Ethanol alcohol and isopropanol alcohol are both acceptable types.
  • Scrub your hands. Use the amount of hand sanitizer recommended on the label and rub into both hands vigorously. Make sure to get all areas of the hands, including the wrists and under nails, just as you do when washing. Rub until they air dry.
  • Have some within reach. It’s a good idea to keep some hand sanitizer with you. It can come in handy when you walk your dog, travel, or attend class at school.

Keep your skin clean and moisturized

Of course, too much of a good thing can have negative consequences and this counts for hand-washing, too.

Washing your hands constantly until they’re dry, red, and rough might mean that you’re overdoing it. If your hands become cracked or bleed, they may be more prone to infection from germs and bacteria.

To avoid dryness, try using a moisturizing soap such as glycerin, or use a hand cream or lotion after washing your hands.

Consider your soap and storage

Since germs can live on poorly stored bar soap, liquid soap may be a better alternative. Liquid soaps should be used rather than bar soap in schools and in daycare settings.

Don’t go overboard

In some people, including children, overly frequent hand-washing may be a sign of anxiety or a condition called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Whether you’re a teacher, caregiver, or parent, it can be hard to get kids to wash their hands efficiently. Here are several tips and tricks that might help:

  • Pick your child’s favorite song and have them sing it while washing their hands. If it’s a short song, have them sing it twice. They can try it once in their own voice and once as a character they love.
  • Make up a song or poem that includes all the steps of good hand-washing and recite it with your child often, especially after using the toilet and before meals.
  • Make sure the sink is within reach of little legs and hands, at home and at school.
  • Use fun soaps. These can include foam, liquid soap that changes color, and those that have child-friendly scents or brightly colored bottles.
  • Play a game of thumb war or finger spell with your child while hand-washing.

Washing your hands with regular soap and running water is a highly effective way to stop the spread of germs and bacteria. Hand-washing helps reduce the risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases.

It’s important to wash your hands before and after handling food or eating. Regular, non-antibacterial soap is fine for most everyday use.