How to get the most out of Apple Watch’s Handwashing app


With watchOS 7, you're just a couple quick toggles away from maximum handwashing effectiveness.
With watchOS 7, you're just a couple quick toggles away from maximum handwashing effectiveness.
Photo: Apple

The new Handwashing app in watchOS 7 gives you a handy reminder to keep your mitts clean. Thoroughly, COVID-19-fighting clean. However, you need to make two quick tweaks to maximize the effectiveness of this new handwashing tool.

“Wash your hands!” It’s a command we’ve all heard since we were kids. And yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, this age-old advice became of the central tenets for helping avoid infection by the potentially deadly virus. However, you need to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds to kill SARS-CoV-2.

With watchOS 7, Apple added a Handwashing app that nudges you to wash your hands properly. It works well, but a couple of important features are switched off by default. You should switch ’em on immediately to get the most out of the app.

Note: The Handwashing app only works with Apple Watch Series 4 and later.

How to use the Apple Watch Handwashing app

First you’ll need to download and install iOS 14, which you need to run watchOS 7. Then, obviously, you need to upgrade your watch to watchOS 7.

Then, open the Watch app on your iPhone. Scroll down to Handwashing. It should be set to allow notifications by default. If you like, you can switch them off or have them sent to Notification Center. You also can adjust the notification grouping here if you want.

Below that are the two most important settings if you want to get the most out of the Apple Watch Handwashing app. First, toggle on the Handwashing Timer. Doing so means that every time Apple Watch detects that you started washing your hands, it will set a handy countdown timer that reminds you to go the full, CDC-recommended 20 seconds.

After you enable the Handwashing Timer, a second toggle appears: Handwashing Reminders. Toggle this on to enable another helpful feature. Then allow the app access to your precise location. (Note: For this to work, you will need to have Location Services enabled. If you previously switched that off, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and toggle it on.)

What does the Handwashing app do?

After that second change, your Apple Watch will remind you to wash your hands anytime you return to your home after a potentially dangerous trip into the (shudder) … outside world. Here’s how Apple describes this feature: “Receive a notification if you haven’t washed your hands within a few minutes of returning home.”

As mentioned, every time you wash your hands, your Apple Watch will start the 20-second countdown to prod you into going the distance. Stop early, and it will give you a gentle nudge to wash your hands “a bit more.” Fail to take heed, and you’ll see an information popup explaining that 20 seconds of handwashing can get rid of germs that can make you ill.

If you’re wondering exactly why you need to wash your hands that long, this article from Northeastern University makes clear why “the worst enemy of the [COVID-19] virus is that cheap soap by your sink“:

That’s because of simple chemistry. In soap lather, a combination of molecules assemble into bubble-like structures called micelles that trap viral matter and other biomaterials—grease, oil, dirt—and rinse them down the drain.

The soaps we use contain a class of compounds called surfactants, which can neutralize germs in our skin such as SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses, pathogens with a crown-like structure and an outer membrane made of lipid molecules and proteins.

“Surfactants basically pry open coronavirus particles and encapsulate viral molecules within micelles suspended in the lather clinging to your hands,” says Thomas Gilbert, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern. “That allows the deactivated viral material to be washed away as you rinse your hands.”

(Need some pro tips on effective handwashing? Read our previous post: How to wash (and dry) your hands properly.)

A simple app that helps fight COVID-19

The Apple Watch’s new built-in Handwashing app actually makes a ton of sense. If you inadvertently bring the virus that causes COVID-19 into your home on your hands, you want to get it off immediately. Same goes for any germs, really.

So far, I’ve found the Handwashing app to be quite helpful. It reliably identifies when I’m washing my hands. The only (extremely minor) annoyance is when I’m washing dishes. I don’t necessarily need to be reminded to scrub a dirty plate for 20 seconds, but the notifications are pretty low-key. I’ll definitely put up with them if I can forget about singing “Happy Birthday to You” every time I wash my hands.


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