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Think you know how to wash your hands? Here’s how – and why – to do it the way the pros do

Waleed Javaid, MD

Waleed Javaid, MD

It‘s simple, quick and one of the best ways to reduce the spread of disease.

Hand washing is paramount in hospitals, but its importance may be overlooked at home. Even if you recognize the health benefits of keeping hands clean, are you sure you‘re washing your hands properly?

Here‘s advice from Upstate infectious disease expert Waleed Javaid, MD, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  1. Waleed Javaid, MD, hand washing seriesTurn on water to a warm -- not boiling-hot -- temperature.

Why: Water that is too hot can affect skin integrity. Repeated exposure to hot water increases the risk of dermatitis or skin irritation.

You might be tempted to wash with hot water, thinking the heat kills germs. It could. But as  Javaid points out, water that is hot enough to kill germs – greater than 100 degrees – would burn skin.

Waleed Javaid, MD, hand washing series2. Place hands under running water.

Why: This aids soap activation, or lathering. Experts recommend against using a basin of standing water because of the risk it could be contaminated through previous use.

Waleed Javaid, MD, hand washing series3. Apply just one squirt of liquid soap.

Why: Overuse of a soap product may cause drying of hands, and dry, cracked hands may harbor bacteria, viruses and/or fungus.

In a household setting, bar soap is another option, using just enough to get the job done.

Surfactants in soap help lift soil and microbes from the skin, according to the CDC. Also, people tend to scrub hands more thoroughly when they use soap, rather than just water.

Waleed Javaid, MD, hand washing series4. Rubbing briskly, wash all surfaces of hands, including between fingers, for at least 15 to 20 seconds. That‘s about two rounds of the “Happy Birthday” song, beginning to end.

Why: The principle of good hand-washing technique is primarily that of mechanical removal of dirt and microorganisms, using friction.

The CDC guidelines acknowledge that the optimal length of time for hand washing depends on many factors. A surgeon who is likely to come into contact with germs that could spread to vulnerable patients washes her hands more thoroughly than a man who is preparing lunch for himself in his own kitchen.

Waleed Javaid, MD, hand washing series5. Rinse thoroughly under running water.

Why: This helps remove any dirt or microbes that were raised through the friction of hand washing. It also lessens skin irritation from soap residue.

Waleed Javaid, MD, hand washing series6. Pat hands dry with paper towels, discarding the paper towels in a waste container.

Why: Germs travel more easily on wet surfaces, so it‘s important to dry your hands. The best method is up for debate. In the hospital, disposable paper towels are favored, but the CDC says air drying is also effective.

Waleed Javaid, MD, hand washing series7. Use a dry paper towel to turn off the fauce, if it is hand-operated.

Why: Treat faucet handles as if they were contaminated. You don‘t want to get your nice clean hands dirty by touching a potentially contaminated faucet. The same advice applies to door handles in public rest rooms.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says to wash your hands:

  • 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, coughin, or sneezing

  • After touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste

  • After handling pet food or pet treats

  • After touching garbage.


Soap and water is the best way to wash your hands – and the only proper way if your hands are visibly soiled. If soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol may be a good alternative.


Sanitizers without alcohol or with lower concentrations don‘t work as well on all types of germs, may not effectively kill germs, and may cause germs to build up a resistance to sanitizers, the CDC reports Sanitizers that do not contain alcohol also are more likely to irritate skin.

health-winter-2017cvrThis article appears in the winter 2017 issue of Upstate Health magazine.