You probably heard this all the time as a kid or constantly repeat it to your kids: “wash your hands!” But what does it mean to wash your hands, and why does the method matter? Scrubbing for at least 20 seconds, using proper technique, gets rid of germs that can make you sick. The first step is wetting your hands to help the soap work better.

Infographic showing the proper steps for washing your hands
Learning the correct steps for washing your hands can help keep you and your family healthy.

What is handwashing?

Handwashing is the act of cleaning your hands with soap and running water and drying them afterward. It’s important to wash your hands many times throughout the day, especially before preparing food and after using the bathroom. But knowing when to wash your hands isn’t enough. You also must know how to wash your hands.

You might think the how-to part is easy. After all, you’ve been lathering up at the sink for as long as you can remember. So, you don’t need to learn how to wash your hands properly, right? It’s not quite that simple. The tips you learned long ago can easily go out the window when you’re in a hurry or don’t realize why the technique makes a difference.

Washing your hands thoroughly and consistently can help keep you and your family healthy. If you do get sick, good handwashing can help keep germs from spreading to others. So, relearning this deceptively simple skill can have big payoffs for you and those you love — and even those you’ll never meet.

Why is handwashing important?

Handwashing is one of the best ways to stop infections from spreading. Germs are everywhere, from your kitchen counters to gas station pumps. Your immune system can fend off many germs or prevent them from doing serious harm. But sometimes, germs can still succeed in making you sick. That’s where effective handwashing comes into play.

Research shows that you can prevent 1 in 3 illnesses that cause diarrhea and 1 in 5 respiratory infections by keeping your hands clean. That’s because your hands are a convenient transportation system for germs.

Thinking of germs getting on and off a bus can help you understand how they travel from one spot to another. Germs can hop on the bus (your hands) and quickly get where they want to go (cells inside your body). All you have to do is touch a contaminated surface and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth. From there, the germs transfer to the mucus membranes that lead into your body, where they attempt to set up camp and multiply.

But you can reroute the “bus” by washing your hands. Instead of traveling to entry points that lead into your body, the germs end up going down the drain. A few may try to hang on. But washing your hands for long enough with the proper technique can get rid of most germs before they make it to their intended destination.

If you don’t get sick, you won’t spread the germs to others in your home or drop them off in public (where they can then wait for the next bus to come along). Washing your hands can stop germs in their tracks.


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How long should you wash your hands?

You should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and running water. Many people assume they do this already. But in fact, during a busy day, it’s hard not to rush your time at the sink so you can dash to your next obligation. Research shows most people don’t wash their hands long enough for handwashing to be fully effective.

Try setting a timer, and you’ll notice that 20 seconds is longer than you think. It’s about enough time to quietly hum the “happy birthday” song twice. The more you time yourself, the more you’ll get used to lathering up for 20 seconds. And soon, it’ll become a habit.

What are the handwashing steps?

Think fast: What’s the correct first step in handwashing? If you immediately think of applying soap, you’re close, but not quite correct. You should first wet your hands with water. A splash of water helps the soap do a better job of trapping and removing germs and toxins.

Here are the steps you should follow:

  • Wet your hands. Use clean, running water (warm or cold). Then, turn off the faucet to save water.
  • Apply soap. Lather up and rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds. Don’t forget to wash your wrists, the back of each hand, the spaces between your fingers and under your fingernails. This part is so important. The friction of rubbing your hands together helps get your hands clean.
  • Rinse your hands. Turn the tap back on and rinse your hands under running water. Make sure all the soap is gone. A thorough rinse removes all the germs, chemicals and dirt from your hands.
  • Turn off the faucet. Use your elbow or a paper towel. This can prevent more germs from latching onto your now-clean hands.
  • Dry your hands. Use a clean paper towel or hand towel to thoroughly dry your hands. It’s tempting to just shake out your hands and let them air dry. But research shows that it’s easier for germs to spread on wet hands versus dry ones. So, get your hands nice and dry to help them stay cleaner for longer. 


When should you wash your hands?

You should wash your hands many times throughout the day when you’re at home, at work or out in public. But in the hustle and bustle of your routine, it’s easy to overlook those moments. You can remember key times to wash your hands by thinking of FACES, which stands for:

  • Food.
  • Animals.
  • Caregiving.
  • Exposure to bodily fluids.
  • Special situations.

Each line above stands for a set of situations where you need to lather up.

Don’t let germs make their way to your face, where they can enter your eyes, nose or mouth. How can you keep them away? Let’s take a closer look.


Since food directly enters your mouth, it’s an easy way for germs to get into your body. You can help keep your food and the spaces where you handle it clean by washing your hands:

  • Before eating any food, especially finger foods.
  • Before and after preparing food.
  • Immediately after touching raw meat (before you touch anything else, including spices or fridge handles).
  • After touching compost or garbage.
  • After wiping down your counters or other areas of your kitchen (in this case, you want to rid your hands of chemicals from cleaners).


Animals, including beloved pets, can spread germs. Be sure to wash up after:

  • Touching pets, particularly if it’s while you’re cooking or doing tasks in the kitchen.
  • Handling pet food or treats.
  • Touching any animal not in your household.
  • Cleaning cages or other spaces occupied by animals.


Whether you’re caring for a child, parent or someone outside your home, it can be hard to avoid catching germs from them. To lower your risk, wash up after:

  • Caring for anyone who’s sick.
  • Changing a diaper.
  • Helping someone clean up after using the toilet.

Exposure to body fluids

Body fluids are where lots of germs go to mingle and plan their next trip. To stop them from taking a journey, be sure to wash your hands:

  • After using the bathroom.
  • After sneezing or coughing.
  • After blowing your nose.
  • After cleaning up vomit or diarrhea (yours or someone else’s).
  • Before and after cleaning/bandaging a wound (yours or someone else’s).

Special situations

Life doesn’t always fit into neat and tidy categories. Most key situations where you need to wash your hands are covered above. But there are some other times when you should wash up or, if you can’t get to a sink, use hand sanitizer. These include:

  • Before putting in your contact lenses (in this case, use soap and water).
  • After using shared objects at work like computer keyboards or other equipment.
  • After touching high-traffic surfaces like doorknobs, elevator buttons and railings.
  • When you get home from a public place or spending time in the outdoors.
  • When your employer’s guidelines say you should. For example, you may need to use handwashing stations at certain times or follow procedures for wearing and removing gloves.

If you have questions or concerns about when to wash your hands, or how often, it’s a good idea to reach out to a healthcare provider. They can advise you based on your unique situation, including your medical history, your family’s needs and your line of work.

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

No. All you need is soap (any kind) and water to get rid of germs. There’s no proof that antibacterial soap is better at preventing illness than ordinary soap and water for most people. Healthcare workers may follow different guidance depending on the situation.

Can you use body wash as hand soap?

Yes. Any kind of soap is fine and will help remove germs from your hands. Just be sure you follow the steps above. Keep in mind that some body washes have strong fragrances that may stick around on your hands after you wash them.

Can I use hand sanitizer instead of washing my hands?

It depends. Each method of cleaning your hands works a bit differently. Soap and water are effective at removing germs and harmful substances from your hands. Hand sanitizer kills some types of germs.

You should opt for soap and water whenever possible because it’s better than hand sanitizer at:

  • Getting rid of certain germs that can make you very sick, like norovirus and C. diff.
  • Removing pesticides and heavy metals (such as lead).
  • Removing dirt, grease or residue from outdoor activities like fishing or camping.

However, hand sanitizer can come in handy in certain situations, including:

  • When you’re visiting someone in a hospital or nursing home. In most situations, it’s adequate to use hand sanitizer before and after your visit. (If the person has certain infections, like C. diff, use soap and water instead.)
  • When you don’t have access to soap and running water. In that case, use hand sanitizer but lather up at a sink as soon as possible.
  • When young children need to sanitize their hands. Using soap and water is usually best for kids, especially if their hands are noticeably sticky or dirty. But it can take a while for little ones to master the art of handwashing. Hand sanitizer can be easy for them to use, especially if you’re traveling or on the go. But be sure an adult supervises and keep these products (which can be harmful if swallowed) out of your child’s reach.

Make sure your hand sanitizer contains at least 60% ethyl alcohol or 70% isopropyl alcohol to effectively kill germs, including the virus that causes COVID-19.


Is it dangerous to wash your hands too much?

It’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Washing your hands at key times is important, but lathering up too often can:

  • Strip your hands of healthy oils and the good bacteria you need to fight off germs.
  • Lead to cracked, dry or chapped hands, which gives germs an opportunity to more easily enter your body.
  • Cause eczema flareups in people who have this condition.
  • Lead to irritant contact dermatitis.

If you need to wash your hands often for work or other reasons, it may help to use a moisturizer containing emollients to soothe your hands. You can also talk to your healthcare provider about ways to keep your skin as smooth as possible and prevent irritation or other problems.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Like brushing your teeth or doing dishes, handwashing is probably one of those tasks you do on autopilot. You’ve done it a million times, and you might not think too much about your method. But it’s a good idea to check in with yourself every now and then to see if there’s room for improvement.

When it comes to washing your hands, that might mean adding a few more seconds of scrubbing to your routine. Or you may need to remind yourself to fully dry your hands with a clean towel. Taking just a bit more time to master the art of handwashing can have major payoffs down the road in keeping you and your family healthy.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 04/02/2024.

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