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20 Hand-Washing Mistakes You're Making

The simple mistakes you're making could be spreading germs, not killing them.

With the deadly coronavirus outbreak gripping the world, you must protect yourself. The easiest way is to do that is to wash your hands properly. You probably assume you have your hand washing routine down pat. Soap, water, dry off. What's so hard about that? The problem is, you're doing it wrong.

If you want to make sure your hands aren't carriers for germs and sickness, click through to read every one of these 20 ways you're washing your hands wrong—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.


You're Reaching For the Soap First

woman hands with soap bar

When it comes to hand washing, you're on one team or the other. Either you wet your hands first or you pump the soap into your hands first. While you may think it makes no difference, the CDC recommends that you wet your hands first. Your wet skin can more easily absorb the soap, which leads to a better lather and more effective removal of bacteria.

The Rx: It can be hard to break a habit, especially if you've been using soap before you turn on the faucet for years now. However, it's time to start switching it up and getting your hands wet first. This will ensure the soap can lather and do its job.


You're Not Scrubbing for Long Enough

scrubbing soapy hand against washbasin

A public restroom isn't exactly a warm and inviting place to spend your time. The unpleasant environment can make you rush through your hand washing routine. But if you don't spend enough time scrubbing your hands, you're really not doing much. Without dedicating the proper amount of time to lathering and scrubbing, the task is useless and isn't effective at killing germs or microbes on the surface of your skin.

The Rx: According to the Mayo Clinic, after you wet and soap up your hands, you should spend about 20 seconds lathering them. A popular way to keep track of the time you need to lather is by singing the "Happy Birthday" song. Rub your hands together vigorously throughout the entire song to ensure the soap has time to activate and kill germs.


You're Not Using Enough Soap

Person's Hand With Liquid Soap Dispenser

Don't be shy with the soap! If you're in a hurry, it can be tempting to grab one little pump of the stuff, lather, rinse, and get out. However, soap does more than just make your hands smell nice. According to Dr. Aileen Marty, MD, from Florida International University, "since the surfaces of bacteria and viruses are made partly of fatty materials, ingredients in soap create a chemical reaction that grabs onto the germs so they rinse right off with the lather." If you don't use enough soap, you're not giving it the chance to work its magic.

The Rx: The exact amount of soap you should use depends on the size of your hands and how dirty they are. Aim for a few pumps of liquid soap and be sure you feel that both the front and back of your hands are covered in soap lather before rinsing.


You're Not Drying

wipes her hands with a napkin

Even the most perfect hand washing routine is useless if you don't dry your hands. According to the CDC, "Germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands." If you have to grab the door handle or other potentially germy objects in the public bathroom with wet hands, you're simply re-contaminating your hands with microbes that you just worked so hard to wash away.

The Rx: Use the paper towels, if provided in the public restroom. Even if you're in a hurry, take the time to ensure your hands have completely dried before leaving the restroom or touching any surfaces. Don't touch any surfaces or yourself until your hands have completely dried.


You're Using Too Much Soap

man washes his hands with soap in the sink

Soap is an important component of hand washing and is what helps get the germs and bacteria off your hands. However, using a huge amount of soap can also be detrimental. If you pump too much soap on your hands and don't rinse it off properly, it can irritate your skin later on during the day.

The Rx: Use only a few pumps of liquid hand soap. You should use enough that you can feel a good lather on the surface of your hands, but not so much that your hands feel slimy. If you accidentally use too much soap, take the time to thoroughly rinse your hands and ensure you got all the suds off. This will prevent skin irritation that can occur if soap is left on your skin.


You're Not Washing Enough

preparing chicken in the kitchen

If you're only washing your hands after using a public restroom, you're simply not doing it enough to keep nasty germs at bay. You should wash your hands anytime you feel they're dirty or have been exposed to germs. 

The Rx: There are specific times when you should wash your hands to prevent the potential spread of germs or illness. The CDC recommends washing your hands at these key times:

  • Before and after caring for someone who's sick.
  • Before, during, and after preparing or eating food.
  • Before and after treating a wound.
  • After changing a diaper or assisting a child in using the toilet.
  • After coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose.
  • After touching an animal, animal waste, or animal feed.
  • After touching garbage.

If you thoroughly wash your hands under these circumstances, you can more effectively get rid of the microbes and germs that can spread illness.


You're Neglecting Your Fingernails

Woman hands with beautiful manicure

Even if you're careful enough to take an entire 20 seconds to lather your hands, your hand washing routine is ineffective if you're not also involving your fingernails. Germs and bacteria can easily get stuck under your fingernails and if you touch surfaces, then chew on your nails or touch your face, you're still spreading these germs.

The Rx: Dr. Marty suggests "To clean underneath your nails, take your right hand and rub the tips of your fingers on the palm of your left hand and vice versa." Including this motion in your soap lathering process can ensure you eliminate the germs that get trapped under your fingernails.


You're Relying on Hand Sanitizer Alone

Women's hands using wash hand sanitizer gel pump dispenser

While hand sanitizer can be helpful at eliminating germs when you don't have the amenities for a full hand wash, you shouldn't solely rely on it to keep you germ-free. According to the CDC, "alcohol-based hand sanitizers don't kill all types of germs, such as a stomach bug called norovirus, some parasites, and Clostridium difficile, which causes severe diarrhea." These sanitizers also may not remove harmful chemicals, like pesticides or heavy metals.

The Rx: Hand sanitizer can be a quick way to eliminate germs before and after you visit a loved one who's sick or if you don't have access to hand washing amenities. However, if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy, hand sanitizer simply won't do the trick. You'll need to find water and soap and thoroughly wash your hands.


You're Skipping the Soap Completely

man washing in bathroom

A quick rinse and dry simply isn't effective at removing the microbes and bacteria on your hands. Soap lifts these microbes from your skin oils and washes them away. The CDC also encourages the use of soap with every hand washing because "people tend to scrub hands more thoroughly when using soap, which further removes germs."

The Rx: Don't just rinse and go. If there's soap available, use it in your routine. If soap isn't around, you may be better off using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol to kill the germs on your hands.


You're Touching the Faucet Right After

paper towel

A study conducted by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) asked 22 families to swab common household items in their homes. These items were tested for many contaminants, including yeast, mold and coliform bacteria, which is a family of bacteria that includes Salmonella and E. coli. It was concluded that 9% of the household faucets contained these harmful bacteria, which can cause illness. If you wash your hands, but then touch the faucet right after, you could still be exposing yourself to these germs.

The Rx: Most public restrooms are equipped with automatic faucets, which prevents you from having to touch them at all. However, if you're in a bathroom without an automatic faucet, be careful about what you touch after washing your hands. If possible, use a clean paper towel to turn off the faucet after washing.


You're Not Rinsing Well Enough

Woman Washing Hands In Kitchen Sink

Once you've completely lathered and the soap has done its job, it's just as important to rinse it all away. Lathered soap attracts microbes that were trapped in the oils of your skin. If you don't rinse them away with running water, they'll simply stay on your hands. Soap residue can also be a skin irritant, which can cause itchy or filmy hands.

The Rx: Don't just dip your hands into a pool of water and assume you've rinsed off the soap. The CDC warns, "Because hands could become recontaminated if rinsed in a basin of standing water that has been contaminated through previous use, clean running water should be used." Rinse your hands thoroughly and use friction again to ensure you've rinsed the soap out of the crevices of your hands.


You're Touching the Door Handle Right After You Wash

Door knob on or off the bathroom

When your hands are clean, grabbing the door handle to get out of the public restroom may only contaminate them yet again. A study conducted by Dr. Lennox Archibald, MD, Ph.D. from the University of Florida studied bacteria contamination in public restrooms and aircraft lavatories. His findings concluded that surfaces, including the door handles, were contaminated with staph, e. Coli, and Enterococcus bacteria. These germs can cause illnesses that result in diarrhea and other digestive ailments.

The Rx: Use a clean paper towel to open the door after you've washed your hands. Don't touch the door handle unnecessarily and attempt to push it open with your foot instead of your hands, if possible.


You're Choosing the Hand Dryers Over Paper Towels

Female dries wet hand in modern vertical hand dryer in public restroom

Hand dryers are better for the environment and may leave a smaller carbon footprint than paper towels. Unfortunately, this drying method just isn't as sanitary as paper towels. A systematic review completed by the Mayo Clinic Proceedings tested both drying methods and found that paper towels can dry hands more quickly and thoroughly than some hand dryers. The study concluded that paper towels can "remove bacteria effectively, and cause less contamination of the washroom environment. From a hygiene viewpoint, paper towels are superior to electric air dryers."

The Rx: When you have a choice between these drying methods, you're placed in an environmental/hygiene conundrum. However, to keep your hands as clean as possible, you should choose paper towels over the hand dryer. But there's no need to overdue it. Only use the amount of paper towels you need to thoroughly dry your hands.


You Only Use Hot Water

finger trying how hot the water is

The age-old myth is that scalding hot water is the only way to clean your hands from bacteria. However, for hot water to be effective at killing bacteria, it would have to be 104 to 131 degrees Fahrenheit. That's way too hot for your skin to stand! According to Amanda R. Carrico from Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment, "It's certainly true that heat kills bacteria, but if you were going to use hot water to kill them it would have to be way too hot for you to tolerate."

The Rx: Cold water can be just as effective as hot water for removing microbes from your hands, as long as you follow proper hand washing protocol. Use enough soap, lather thoroughly, rinse well, and completely dry your hands and you'll be clean, even with cold water.


You Don't Clean Your Bar of Soap

man washes his hands with soap in the sink

If you're washing your hands at home, you may be using a bar of soap that sits next to your sink. Bacteria love wet and warm surfaces, so your soap may attract some microbes that can hang out on the bar's surface. If you're following proper hand washing procedures, these bacteria more than likely won't transfer to your hands. However, keeping your bar of soap clean can guarantee you won't have to worry about the germs in your soap dish.

The Rx: It's pretty simple to keep your bar of soap clean. Elaine L. Larson, PhD from Columbia University's School of Nursing suggests, "Rinse off the bar in running water before lathering up to wash away the germy goop. And always store soap out of water (i.e. not in a wet bathtub), allowing it to dry between uses. That way, there's no moist environment for germs to flock to in the first place."


You Think Antibacterial is Better

female choosing bottle for liquid soap in supermarket

We hate to burst your bubble but "antibacterial" soaps might be a sham. After many studies, the CDC concluded "that there is no added health benefit for consumers (this does not include professionals in the healthcare setting) using soaps containing antibacterial ingredients compared with using plain soap." 

As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ruling in September 2016 that 19 ingredients used in "antibacterial" soaps are just as effective as non-antibacterial soap and water. These products are no longer allowed to be marketed to the public as "antibacterial" and some of these ingredients may even make our bodies resistant to antibiotics.

The Rx: While buzzwords like "antibacterial" are tempting, regular soap works just fine. As long as you're taking the time to follow proper hand washing protocol with fresh running water and soap, you're eliminating bacteria from your hands.


You're Neglecting the Backs of Your Hands

Man washing hands.

According to the CDC, "Lathering and scrubbing your hands creates friction, which helps to remove dirt, grease, and germs from your skin." When you're in the act of vigorously rubbing your palms together, it's important not to miss other parts of your hands. The back of your hands have exposure to germs too, so be sure you don't neglect them in your washing routine.

The Rx: It's easy to get stuck in a hand wash routine that includes bad habits like forgetting to scrub the backs of your hands. Revamp your hand washing technique to be sure you're including this area in your 20-second scrub down. 


You're Not Washing Your Hand Towels Often Enough

Woman in apron wiping her hands

When you wash your hands at home, either in the kitchen or bathroom sink, it's important to finish your routine with a clean, dry towel. Bacteria thrive and breed in warm, damp places. Towels that are still a little wet or that haven't been thoroughly washed in a while are great areas for bacteria to live in. 

A study published in Food Protection Trends analyzed the bacteria on 82 household kitchen hand towels. The study concluded that "Coliform bacteria were detected in 89% and E. coli in 25.6% of towels. The presence of E. coli was related to the frequency of washing."

The Rx: Wash your kitchen and bathroom towels often and try not to let them stay wet. Charles Gerba from the University of Arizona suggests, "People should wash any bathroom towels after about two days of use." Since bacteria can sometimes survive a wash with regular detergent, he suggests using hot water and a product that contains activated oxygen bleach when washing towels.


You're Not Washing at All

boy playing outside with dirty hands

If you're completely skipping the hand washing, you could be spreading harmful bacteria to yourself and others. According to the CDC, "Keeping your hands clean is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to the people around you. Many diseases and conditions are spread by not cleaning your hands properly."

The Rx: Not only should you wash your hands every time you use the toilet, you should also wash before and after handling or eating food and any time you're dealing with open wounds. Following the proper hand washing protocol can keep you, your friends, and family members safe from microbes, germs, and bacteria that can be found on your hands.


You're Washing Too Much

worried woman looking at hands fingers

It's important to keep your hands clean so you can prevent illness and the spread of germs. But it is possible to wash your hands too much. If you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or suffer from anxiety, you may feel the need to constantly wash your hands, even if you've just washed them and haven't done anything to contaminate them. According to Francine Rosenberg, Psy.D. from Nova Southeastern University, "Those with hand-washing compulsions are obsessed with fear of contamination and often wash their hands repeatedly until they are chapped, raw and sometimes even bleeding." Ouch!

The Rx: If you feel obsessed with hand washing and you constantly feel the urge to grab the soap, even if you know your hands are clean, you may have OCD or anxiety. It's important to speak with a counselor or therapist as soon as possible to work through the issues that may be causing this obsessive hand washing. Treatment and medication may be available to help you through this disorder and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 37 Places You're Most Likely to Catch Coronavirus.

Kelly Hernandez
Kelly Hernandez is a health and wellness writer and certified personal trainer. Read more about Kelly
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