Tips for proper handwashing

There's clear evidence that outbreaks of disease happen because people just aren't doing it right.

The vast majority of us simply aren't washing our hands properly, even after using the bathroom, says a School of Public Health researcher.

"Most handwashing studies are done in health-care settings. Even doctors and nurses are only getting it right 50 per cent of the time," said Professor Nicholas Ashbolt.

"Other studies and evidence suggest that fewer than 5 per cent of the rest of us are doing a good job."

The consequence is an ongoing spread of nasty illnesses.

"Viruses, bacteria and protozoa (parasites) are the three main classes of germs (pathogens) that are spread human to human. They can persist on surfaces and be transferred by human contact," said Ashbolt. Think colds, flus and nasty bouts of diarrhea.

"There's clear evidence that outbreaks of disease and increased rates of hospitalizations happen in health-care settings and from food handlers when people are not adequately washing their hands after using the toilet."

Ashbolt contends that more research is needed to study handwashing behaviours in other settings outside of health-care facilities, such as schools and university campuses.

"I'm not aware of teachers going into school bathrooms to teach kids how to wash their hands properly," he pointed out.

"A good starting place is to get government more engaged with raising education levels of good hand hygiene."

How to wash your hands properly

Antibacterials are not effective on some types of respiratory viruses, so keep handwashing simple using soap. The key to removing disease-causing germs on your hands is technique, duration and using a paper towel (or your shirt sleeve) to open the bathroom door to leave, explained Ashbolt.

Step 1: Use warm water to wet your hands.

Step 2: Lather vigorously with soap and use physical movement to abrasively remove germs from all areas of the hands for at least 20 seconds.

There was a big debate between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommendations; Ashbolt prefers the latter because it is longer.

"The entire process of washing your hands from start to finish should take 45 seconds. Most of us simply don't wash our hands long enough."

For specifics on how to scrub when hands are visibly soiled-it's quite the procedure-see the World Health Organization instructions.

Step 3: Rinse thoroughly.

Step 4: Do not touch anything in the bathroom at this point.

Step 5: Dry off your hands using a paper towel or an automatic dryer.

"If possible, grab three paper towels. Use one to turn off the tap. Use the other to dry your hands. Then use the final towel to let yourself out of the washroom," said Ashbolt.

World Health Organization handwashing instructions


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