I must say at the outset that I don’t mean to imply by the title that my mother taught me nothing at all about washing hands or that hygiene was a low priority when I was growing up. Quite the contrary. I grew up hearing “wash your hands before you sit up to the table” as much as you did.
However, while I distinctly remember being told to wash my hands and being taught how to clean the sink out after I’d finished washing my hands after playing in mud so I didn’t leave muddy smears all over the soap and the sink (“Always leave it better than you found it,” was a favourite dictum of my mother’s), I have no memory of being taught how to wash my hands properly.
So how do you wash your hands properly? Handwashing is the oldest and by far the best method of preventing the spread of disease, and it is also the easiest way to limit the spread of harmful viruses and bacteria – much easier than wearing facemasks or spraying disinfectant around everything you might come in contact with, and much easier than trying to open public toilet doors with your elbow.
Let’s start with when you wash your hands. Most of us know that we ought to wash our hands after going to the lavatory or before we eat. However, you should also wash your hands after coughing or sneezing, after handling animals, after handling raw meat, chicken or fish, before cooking or handling food, before AND after changing a baby’s nappies, and before AND after caring for a sick person. And, obviously, if you get anything revolting on your hands that you wouldn’t want to put in your mouth, you should wash it off.
Now for how to wash your hands properly. A frightening amount of people consider their hands to be washed if they vaguely wipe a thumb over the soap then stick their fingers under running water for half a second before rubbing like billy-oh on a towel. This will remove a bit of dirt, but won’t reach the full potential for removing germs.
Yes, you should use soap. You don’t have to use special anti-bacterial soap to wash your hands properly and hygienically. Ordinary soap – bar or liquid – will do. But for the soap to work properly, it needs to lather. Wet your hands first, preferably with warm water, to get a good lather going.
Once you have rubbed your hands together to get plenty of lather, keep on rubbing. Rub your palms together first, and then move onto the backs. The more you move and scrub your hands together, the better, the more effectively you will remove dirt, bacteria and other nasties. This step of rubbing with lather should take about 20 seconds. How do you know you’ve spent long enough? You can count it out, but for little children, it may be easier to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” as an indication of the time. Or you could take a tip from the medieval monks and wash your hands for one Paternoster – the amount of time that it takes to pray the Lord’s Prayer.
If you have been doing a dirty job like domestic cleaning London, garden cleaning or changing the oil in your car, you may need to use a scrubbing brush as well. This is a must for dirt stuck under the nails. However, you can prevent dirt getting under your nails when you’re gardening by ramming your nails into a bar of soap before you start. This will wedge soap under your fingernails, which will block the dirt from getting in and also washes out easily. Soap with ground pumice or sand in it also helps scrub out deep dirt after a really grimy job.
Rinse off the soapy lather thoroughly. If water is short, you can do the scrubbing step with the tap turned off, or else in a basin of water. But the rinsing should be done under fresh running water, hot or cold. Make sure all the soap is off.
Lastly, you should dry your hands thoroughly. Paper towels are the most hygienic, but they are wasteful and expensive for everyday home use. Just remember to change your hand towels frequently – they shouldn’t be damp or discoloured. Changing them daily is ideal, but in the real world, twice a week is more realistic. Or have a series of little hand towels that you can use once and wash after using.
The alcohol-based hand sanitizers do a good job of killing the germs on your hands if you are out and about and can’t wash your hands properly. But they won’t actually remove grime off your hands, and using them too often can be tough on your skin, especially if you have sensitive skin. In this writer’s opinion, they’re good for if you find that the public loo you’ve just had to use is out of soap (it happens only too frequently) or if you decide on the spur of the moment to have a picnic but don’t have anywhere to wash your hands. Like space-saver tyres, they’re for emergencies, not as an everyday option.
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