Hand Washing

Bacteria and viruses are easily spread when a sick person sneezes, coughs and talks within close distance to you. You can also get sick when you touch germ-infected surfaces and then touch your face. A simple 20-second handwashing remains one of the best ways to keep yourself healthy and stop the spread of bacteria and viruses.

Why is washing my hands important?

Washing your hands is one of the easiest and most important things you can do to stay healthy and stop the spread of bacteria and viruses such as colds and flu and perhaps even coronavirus COVID-19.


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How does a virus on my hands lead to an infection in my body?

When you rub your eyes or touch your nose or mouth, any viruses on your hands can enter your body through mucous membranes in your eyes, nose or mouth.

Think about all the things you touch every day — doorknobs, elevator buttons, door handles, ATMs, touchscreens, your cellphone (and all the surfaces it has touched) — just to name a few! When you touch these objects, any viruses that are able to survive on these surfaces may be transferred to your hands. According to the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, whether you realize it or not, it’s estimated that people touch their faces at least 23 times an hour.

This is why washing your hands is so important.

What’s the proper technique for washing my hands?

There are only a few simple steps to take to give your hands a thorough cleaning and prevent the spread of illness. The steps are:

  1. Wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold).
  2. Lather up your hands with soap. Rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds. Silently “singing” the birthday song twice is an easy-to-remember 20-second timer tool. Don’t forget to wash your wrists, the back of your hands, between your fingers and under your fingernails.
  3. Rinse your hands well under running water.
  4. Turn off the water with your elbow.
  5. Dry your hands with a clean towel or air dry them.
  6. If you used a towel to dry your hands, use the same towel to open the bathroom door to leave the room. Discard the towel in a wastebasket.

Do I need to use antibacterial soap to wash my hands?

No, not at all, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA says there’s no proof that using consumer-labeled “antibacterial” soap is better at preventing illness than ordinary soap and water. Actually, all soap is antibacterial. And because germs you’re exposed to include viruses, it makes even less sense to worry about antibacterial-labeled soap.

When can I or should I use alcohol-based hand sanitizers?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands with soap and water whenever possible to reduce the amounts and types of germs and chemicals on your hands. However, if soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Hand sanitizers with lower alcohol levels are not as effective in killing germs.

Soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers in removing certain germs from your hands. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can actually kill certain types of germs — but not all germs — and in those cases, you need to use soap and water.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers:

  • May not work well if your hands are heavily soiled or greasy.
  • May not remove chemicals like pesticides and heavy metals.
  • Can be harmful if swallowed.
  • Have to be used as instructed to be fully effective.

To use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, squeeze the sanitizer into the palm of one hand (read the product label to learn the proper amount), rub your hands together, including the back of your hands and fingers. Continue rubbing until your hands are dry.

One final note: Alcohol rubs are better and easier for young children to use because they lack the coordination for good handwashing techniques. Only use alcohol-based hand sanitizers under adult supervision and keep these products out of your child’s reach.


Are there any dangers from washing my hands too often?

If you have a lot of cracks in the skin on your hands or have dry or chapped hands, be careful about how often you wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers (which can further dry out your skin).

Washing your hands too often or using these hand sanitizers strips your hands of healthy oils and the good bacteria needed to fight off germs. Germs can also more easily enter your body through skin that is not intact. To combat this condition, apply a moisturizing hand cream or lotion to damp hands.

Signs you’re overwashing your hands include red or raw skin, itching or flaky skin and pain. Check with a healthcare provider if you have any concerns you may be overwashing your hands.

When should I wash my hands?

Wash your hands:

  • Whenever they look dirty.
  • Before, during and after you prepare food.
  • Before eating.
  • Before and after contact with an ill person.
  • Before and after treating a cut, sore or wound.
  • After using the toilet or changing diapers.
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. (Wash your hands more often when you’re sick to prevent spreading your sickness to those around you.)
  • After touching animals or animal waste.
  • After touching garbage, body fluids or any time you have doubts if your hands are clean.

Remember: Handwashing is a simple, effective way to fight off infections and keep yourself healthy. It’s easy to do, inexpensive and only takes 20 seconds of your time. In fact, it’s the best 20 seconds you can spend on your health — and the health of others around you.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/05/2020.

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