When cold and flu season hits, people will do virtually anything to avoid getting sick. And with cases of coronavirus on the rise in many parts of the world, personal hygiene and cleanliness are more important than ever. Because the best way to sidestep both seasonal illnesses and that potentially dangerous virus doesn't start with medicine—it starts with a sink. Yes, washing your hands on a regular basis is the best way to keep those nasty germs at bay. The bad news? Your usual routine probably won't cut it.
So, what is the safest way to wash your hands? The ideal hand-washing method is as follows: To begin, wet your hands with clean running water of any temperature. While many people believe that hot water will keep your hands cleaner, any temperature will work, according to a 2002 review of research published in Food Service Technology.
Once your hands are wet, turn off the water with your wrist or elbow and lather up with soap for at least 20 seconds. (Tip: A good way to measure is to sing "Happy Birthday" to yourself twice.) According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the friction created through vigorous lathering removes microbes and dirt from your hands. While you scrub-a-dub-dub, make sure you're getting the soap in the folds of your knuckles, in between your fingers, on your thumbs, and under your fingernails, where there is usually a higher concentration of bacteria.
Once your 20 seconds is up, rinse your hands thoroughly to remove all the debris you just scrubbed off. Turn off the tap with your wrist, then dry your hands with a clean towel. If you don't have a clean towel, air drying is best.
However, even if you incorporate all of those steps into your clean routine, they won't do much good if you're only hitting the sink once or twice a day. If you want to avoid getting sick, you should give your mitts a good wash before and after preparing food, before eating, after handling pet food or treats, and any time you touch garbage. And, of course, make sure to always wash up after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, or after coming into contact with someone who's sick. (It goes without saying that your hands deserve a thorough wash when they're visibly dirty, too.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommend these steps for reducing your risk of contracting the coronavirus—the same ones they recommend for avoiding any respiratory disease.
Seeing as proper hand hygiene can be a bit labor-intensive, you're probably now wondering if and when you can substitute hand sanitizer for a thorough scrubbing. The simple answer? Use it sparingly, and only if you have to. Why? That sanitizer may do more harm than good in the long run. Research published in 2011 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, for instance, suggests that hand sanitizer may actually increase a person's risk of developing norovirus. Scarier yet, a 2014 study published in PLOS One reveals that hand sanitizer may actually increase a person's absorption of BPA, a chemical linked to an increased risk of diabetes and obesity.
Luckily, if you follow this step-by-step guide for safely washing your hands, then you should be able to make it through flu season without so much as a sniffle.
Additional reporting by Sage Young.