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How to wash your hands

Proper handwashing technique can help you to avoid catching and spreading illnesses such as coronavirus, flu and norovirus 

Benenden Health’s Society Matron Cheryl Lythgoe gives her top tips to help you keep your hands clean. Washing your hands is a vital part of infection control. The World Health Organisation recommends washing your hands for 20 seconds. This helps to thoroughly clean them.

Do you have concerns about Coronavirus (COVID-19)? Please find our latest update.

How to wash your hands properly

Good technique can help you prevent the spread of illness, to yourself, loved ones and everyone around you.

1. Wet hands

Wet your hands with warm water, then apply enough liquid soap to remove direct but not to create a thick lather. If you don’t have access to liquid soap at home, you could also use bar soap (if your bar of soap has been sat in sludge, rinse it off beforehand).

2. Rub hands together

Use one hand to rub the back of the other hand and clean between your fingers. Repeat this on the other hand.
Rub your hands together, palm-to palm, and clean between your fingers again.

3. Interlink your fingers

Link your fingers together, facing each other, into clasped hands. It should look like you’ve made a hammock with your hands. Rub your palms and fingers together.

4. Cup your fingers

Rub the back of your fingers against your palm. Repeat this on the other hand.

5. Thumbs and fingertips

Make a fist around one of your thumbs and rub as you rotate it, then swap hands and repeat.
Rub your fingertips on the palm of your other hand. Make sure to do this on both sides.

6. Rinse and dry

Thoroughly rinse your hands with warm running water. If your taps are automatic, use them as instructed. If not, you can use a disposable paper towel to turn off the tap.

Paper towels are the most hygienic way to dry your hands. If you’re somewhere with an automatic hand dryer, these can also be a good option. This is because you don’t have to touch many automatic hand dryers to use them, decreasing the risk of transferring germs. That could risk transferring bacteria from the dryer back onto your hands. Where possible, don’t use a reusable towel to dry your hands. They can harbour germs.

Good handwashing should take 20 seconds. The NHS recommends singing Happy Birthday twice to help you to keep track of the time. Any 20 second song would work here, so you can pick a song that makes you smile.

When should you wash your hands?

You should wash your hands:

  • After returning from a public outing (for example, going to the supermarket)

  • After using the toilet or changing a nappy

  • Before and after caring for someone who is unwell

  • Before and after handling raw foods like meat and vegetables

  • Before eating or handling food

  • After blowing your nose, sneezing or coughing

  • Before and after treating a cut or wound

  • After touching animals, including pets, their food and after cleaning their cages

What if I don’t have access to soap?

Washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds is ideal. But what should you do if there’s no soap available? If you’ve ran out of soap and need to wash your hands, you could use washing up liquid or shower gel. Even just washing with water is better than not washing your hands at all. You might want to wash them for longer and scrub more vigorously under these circumstances.

If you’ve no access to soap or water, alcohol-based hand sanitiser can be used. You should choose one with over 60% alcohol content to make it more effective.

Of course, if you’ve run out of soap at home, you should make it a priority to get some more as soon as you can.

How can I stop my hands from drying out?

Frequent and effective hand washing is a recognised method of protecting yourself and limiting the spread of coronavirus. Unfortunately for some, too much hand washing or use of alcohol-based hand sanitisers are stripping away the natural oils in the skin and making hands dry and painful.

If our hands become dry and cracked this provides open entry points for infection and disease spread.

To avoid this, you should:

  • Use warm – not hot – water for washing your hands

  • Ensure you use enough mild fragrance-free soap when washing your hands to remove dirt but not enough to create a thick lather

  • Dry your hands thoroughly – pat them down with a paper towel or clean towel 

  • Supplement with hand cream

  • Moisturisers, creams and ointments are more effective than lotions

  • Use communal hand cream, if you don’t have any with you, provided you don’t touch the nozzle (you can use a paper towel to help you with this)

If hands are very sore, then try a night-time application of a thick layer of moisturiser and some cotton gloves (which increases absorption) to support and protect the hands throughout the day.

It’s best to start using hand cream before you have a problem with dry hands. This can help you to avoid this discomfort altogether.