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Handwashing: Answers to some key questions

handwashing illustration

A conversation about how best to wash your hands to stop the spread of the coronavirus with Jarrod Bagatell, MD, a doctor of family medicine and the medical director for employee health at Upstate.

Does it matter which kind of soap you use?

Liquid soap is the best way to go, says Bagatell.

With bar soap, the concern is that germs like moist environments and may gather on bar soap that has been sitting around for a bit.

The important thing is that you are washing with either soap for at least 20 seconds, Bagatell says.

Is it important to dry my hands?

Germs like to grow in damp environments. It’s important to thoroughly dry your hands.

Paper towels are effective because you use them, then you throw them out. Cloth towels are fine for personal use. Just make sure they get washed every few days or so. If a person is sick, he or she certainly should be using a separate towel.

20 seconds seems like forever. 

Find a song that you don’t mind singing for those 20 seconds.

It’s actually allowed me an opportunity to pause so that while I’m saying, “1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi,” in my head, I’m taking slow, deep breaths to allow myself to reset, he says. “I actually look forward to that opportunity to pause and wash my hands and be mindful.”

How hard should I scrub?

Using soap, aggressively rub your hands together, making sure that you cover all surfaces.

Do your best to scrub under your nails, in the palm of your hand. Give it a good aggressive scrubbing with lots of bubbles and lots of time on all surfaces and each individual finger and thumb.

HealthLInk on Air logo(Click here to hear Dr. Bagatell discuss handwashing in a podcast interview with Upstate’s “HealthLink on Air.”)

When do we need to wash our hands?

Before you leave your house. When you get to work. After you’ve traveled and touched several other things en route (you likely have touched germs that might have been on inanimate objects like doorknobs and elevator buttons). Before and after you are preparing food. After you’ve cleaned your house. After you’ve sneezed. After you’ve used the bathroom.

Does touching the faucet or doorknob undo my handwashing efforts?


Toilet handles, faucets and doorknobs -- these are high-touch areas. These are places where people often share their germs. If you end up touching one of those after you’ve washed your hands, I suggest you go back and wash your hands again.

And avoid touching your face. That’s the primary way that respiratory infections transfer from one person to another.

All this handwashing is making my hands dry. Is it safe to use lotion?

It’s OK to use your own personal lotion to keep your skin intact. I would advise against sharing other people’s lotion bottles.

Can I paint my nails?

It’s OK to paint your nails, but it’s important that the nails be kept short. I’m more concerned about really, really long nails, which may be more difficult to wash under.

If I’m not near a sink, is hand sanitizer a good substitute for soap and water?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are appropriate. It’s important to make sure the product you use is at least 60 percent alcohol. When you put it on your hands, you really want to give yourself a good scrub of your hands, in the same way you would do with soap and water.

How is all this handwashing helping?

We are ultimately only as safe as our neighbors, or our coworkers, keep themselves safe. It is so important that we tend to our hand hygiene -- and that those around us do the same thing, Bagatell says.

It is the most important thing we can do to help mitigate the spread of this virus.

Upstate Health magazine cover for spring 2020, special coronavirus editionThis article is from the spring 2020 Upstate Health magazine, a special edition dealing with the coronavirus.