17 November 2014

Your health is in your hands

Good hygiene starts with correct hand washing. Yet, so many of us get it wrong – and may become seriously ill as a result.

With life-threatening infectious diseases such as Ebola and swine flu presenting new global challenges, it’s important to take personal hygiene seriously.

Read: Spy cameras encourage students to wash hands

Hand washing protects us by removing infection-causing germs from our hands before they get a chance to infect us (e.g. through our eyes, mouths or noses) or the people around us.

Protects against common infections

It protects us against common infections like colds, flu and gastro, but it may also protect us against really nasty diseases.

While washing one’s hands seems like a fairly simple task, it’s disturbing to note that only 1 in every 20 people around the world washes their hands properly, according to a survey of more than 18 000 adults across 12 countries, including Australia.

Washing our hands is one of the first things our mothers teach us. But if these survey results are anything to go by, it certainly is time for a good refresher course . . .

Your questions answered

We answer a few simple questions on hand washing:

1. What is the correct way to wash your hands?

Good, effective hand washing requires a small amount of water and soap:

•    Lather your wet hands with soap.
•    Scrub your palms, the back of your hands, between the fingers, and especially under your fingernails.
•    Rinse your hands well with running water, rather than still water.
•    Always dry your hands on a clean, dry cloth, paper towel or air dryer, giving them an extra rub as you do so (this further helps to remove micro-organisms).

2. How long should you wash your hands for?

International health guidelines recommend you wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. An easy way to gauge the time is to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. This is also a fun way of teaching kids to wash their hands thoroughly.

Read: Oral hygiene curbs pneumonia risk

3. Why can’t you only rinse with water?

Not using soap is a common mistake when it comes to hand washing. Water alone isn’t effective to dislodge the germs and dirt that get stuck in the natural oils on the skin of your hands.

4. How clean does the water have to be?

Research shows that hand washing with soap and running water reduces the risk of diarrhoea and respiratory diseases, irrespective of water quality.

5. When should you wash your hands?

Always wash your hands:

•    After using the toilet or changing a child’s nappy.
•    Before and after handling food, especially raw meat, fish and poultry.
•    After touching commonly used surfaces or items (e.g. escalator railings, shop trolleys, door knobs, gym equipment).
•    After you’ve worked in the garden or touched animals.
•    After you’ve taken care of sick people.

6. Do waterless hand sanitizers work?

Although washing your hands with soap and water is still the best way to reduce the number of germs on your hands, you can also safely use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. It will help kill micro-organisms, but will not remove dirt effectively.

Over-use of alcohol-based sanitizers isn’t recommended as the alcohol may strip your skin of the friendly bacteria it needs.

Read: Fist bumps more hygienic than handshakes

7. Is antibacterial soap better than regular soap?

Both antibacterial and regular soap are good for washing. It’s the foam created from rubbing one’s hands together with water that helps remove the dirt and germs.

Read More:

How dirty is your money?
How clean is your mouth?
Pain in the mouth and throat

Image: Washing hands with soap under tap water from Shutterstock.


- Health Media Lab

- Global Hygiene Council

- Global Public Private Partnership for Hand-washing



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