How to wash (and dry) your hands properly

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dirty sink
This is a lot cleaner than many public bathrooms I've been in.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

With the COVID-19 coronavirus spreading around the world, it’s worth taking a moment to learn how to wash your hands. Official government advice says that touch is not the most likely way for transmission of the deadly virus. But in general, touch is more likely to spread disease than kissing, according to Bill Bryson in his latest book, The Body. Which means that washing your hands is one of the best ways to guard against catching a cold or something worse.

You probably wash your hands plenty of times throughout the day. But unless you’re a surgeon, you probably don’t do it properly.

Wash often, wash thoroughly

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the main U.S. public health institute, maintains a web page on when and how to wash your hands. The gist is that you should do it often, and thoroughly. To do so, you need soap and water — and time:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air-dry them.

That’s a good basic procedure, although the part about humming “Happy Birthday” is absurd. It sounds like something straight out of a bad Stephen King TV adaptation, and is likely to drive you and anyone else crazy.

But really, we all know — more or less — how to wash our hands properly. It might actually be more useful, then, to know how not to do it properly, and to use that knowledge to avoid common mistakes. Here’s an illustration from a 1978 study, showing the areas most missed during hand washing:

This should be pasted up above every public sink.
This should be posted above every public sink.
Photo: L. Taylor

If you rub your hands together now, in an imaginary scrub, you’ll see the this seems very accurate. I’m pretty sure us humans haven’t got any better at washing our hands since the late 1970s. I’d bet that putting this graphic up in bathrooms would cause a much bigger leap in handwashing efficacy than any number of “now wash your hands” notices will ever manage.

Should you wash your hands in a public bathroom?

Why not, right?
Why not, right?
Photo: Cult of Mac

Once you’ve emptied your bladder into a public toilet, you might be tempted to skip washing your hands. After all, it’s better to get out before touching too many of those germ-riddled surfaces, right? Wrong, because even if you think you touched nothing, you almost certainly have.

“A 2011 study,” writes Melinda Wenner Moyer at The New York Times, “found fecal bacteria on public bathroom flush handles as well as skin-related bacteria, including staphylococci and streptococci, on bathroom doors, stall doors, faucet handles and soap dispensers.”

This is why I always flip the lid and seat of the toilet up with my foot, which I realize may seem like sociopathic behavior.

Even if the bathroom is dirty, the soap is dirty, and the water is dirty, it’s still better to wash your hands than not.

How to dry your hands with just one paper towel

And now we come to drying your hands. Yes, there is a TED video on how to dry your hands thoroughly and quickly with a single paper towel. I promise you that, once you have watched it, you’ll never take a wad of towels from the dispenser ever again. In fact, you will look with disdain and a sense of righteous superiority upon anyone you see committing this wasteful sin. Check it out:

See? Since I first saw that video a few years ago, I’ve never used more than one paper towel to dry my hands.

Now, clean your iPhone

After learning how to wash your hands properly, you might think you are totally safe from bacteria and viruses, now that you have pristine digits. But before you get too smug, think about this: When was the last time you cleaned your iPhone?