It’s the holidays!  Everyone is out enjoying the season – purchasing last minute gifts, viewing Christmas lights and parades, spreading merriness, good cheer and…germs? Yes, germs, those microorganisms that love to cause viruses and infections. While washing your hands may not be the first thing on your “to do list” when you are standing in line for that honey glazed ham, it is certainly important! According to the experts, influenza has showed up early this year and that could mean that we are going to be in for a particularly nasty flu season.  Aside from getting your flu shot, strict hand hygiene is one of the primary ways to keep influenza at bay. To help you stay healthy and in top handwashing shape this holiday season, we thought we would answer a few questions about handwashing and clear up some potential misconceptions on what actually works.

  1. How long do I really have to wash my hands?

A study conducted by the Michigan State University, revealed that only 5% of people wash their hands long enough to sufficiently remove bacteria. The average wash time? Six seconds. Yikes! Even more cringe worthy, is that 1 in 3 people decides to forgo soap! So, how long is long enough? You may have heard the adage to sing your ABC’s whilst washing. Really the answer should be to sing the ABC’s twice. According to the CDC, washing for 20 seconds or more is required to adequately rid the skin of offending bacteria.

  1. Is using hand sanitizer essentially the same thing as washing your hands?

It is not that hand sanitizer is completely useless. In fact, some studies have shown that, in certain cases, alcohol can actually be more effective.  However, the efficacy was primarily linked to the ease of access and length of time that the participants in studies spent “rubbing” their hands. Washing properly (for 20 seconds are more) with soap and water is “…still considered the gold standard.” (see Becker’s Hospital Review) by experts. Indeed, certain infections, like C. Diff, which are spread by spores, and norovirus can only be eliminated by washing with soap and water. Moreover, if your hands are noticeably soiled, sanitizer will not work. A good rule of thumb that we follow here at CHCS is the three “W’s”, that is Wet, Wear, Wash.  Basically, if it is wet or visibly soiled, always wear your gloves and wash your hands.” That being said, if you are out and about and do not have access to soap and water, it is still a good idea to use hand sanitizer.  Just make sure you use enough to cover the entirety of your hands and rub them thoroughly until they are dry.

  1. Does it really matter how you dry your hands?

Well, flinging the water off your hands when there are no towels available is certainly not doing you any favors. In a study by the medical department at Aukland University more than 60,400 microorganisms were transferred from wet hands compared to 200 microorganisms with dry hands.  An air dryer will work better than simply shaking your hands, however the added effect of rubbing against a “clean” paper towel is the best defense against germs. Moreover, consider the fact that air dryers can actually blow germ particles off of your hands into the surrounding air (See this study published in the Journal of Microbiology.) and you might consider skipping them all together. If you are concerned about the planet and creating waste, try using a single paper towel.

  1. Is it possible to “over-wash” your hands?

Unless you are washing your hands so much that you are creating visible abrasions to your skin, then probably not. Conversely, most people do not wash their hands nearly enough. In fact, one study that looked at the handwashing behavior of child care workers showed that only 22% of the workers were in compliance with standard handwashing procedures! However, if you work in healthcare, the food industry or another field that requires you to frequently wash your hands, care should be taken to prevent dermatitis or other skin conditions. Indeed, nurses have hand dermatitis rates estimated to be between 15 and 30% because of the high amount of contact with potentially contaminated substances that requires them to constantly wash their hands. Given that our skin is a barrier to infection, care should be taken to protect the skin, but not at the expense of hand washing. For the average person, simply wearing gloves to wash dishes or do other chores around the house should be enough to prevent dryness. Additionally, be sure to moisturize your skin with lotion on the days that you may be washing your hands more often, such as when you are ill, preparing lots of food, or if you work in one of the aforementioned industries.

Hopefully, this article has taught you something new about washing your hands. If you enjoyed this article or have something to add, let us know in the comments below. And, here’s to you and yours for a hopefully, “virus-free” holiday season!

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