How well do you think you wash your hands? I’ll bet that you are rubbish.

Washing our hands is, um….hands down the most effective way to prevent the spread of disease and infections.

From gastroenteritis to coronavirus, stopping the spread of these infections in our communities is quite literally all in our hands.

As a retired nurse with 35 years of clinical experience, one thing I tend to notice is the way most people wash their hands in public bathrooms. I cant help it.

My completely unscientific subjective estimate of hand-washing compliance in public restrooms would be that overall around 80% of people wash their hands after going to the toilet. Do you think that’s about right?

Obviously my observations are mostly of males, and I suspect that an estimate of 80% would drop significantly when individuals feel they are alone and unobserved by others.

OK…80%. That does not sound too bad.

Thing is, that most of the people who do wash their hands do a rubbish job of it and may as well not wash them at all.

I would estimate that 99% of people I watch do NOT do an effective hand wash.

This is known as the fidelity of hand-washing. That is the actual effectiveness or quality of the activity in actually removing micro-organisms from the hands.

Most people I observe do a quick 3-second rinse under the water. Sometimes not even using soap from the dispenser. I even see males wash just one hand (the business hand) under the water for a few seconds.

So how long SHOULD I wash my hands for?

Two things are important here: time and technique.

An effective hand wash will take a minimum of 20 seconds and up to 60 seconds if you want to level-up to hand-wash master.

Even 20 seconds seems like a long time when you are standing in a public restroom and you have plenty of more important things you need to be doing.

How to wash your hands.

Or if you would prefer…here is a quick video of an effective 20-second hand-wash. Easy peasy.

20 second hand wash. Simple.

Use the hand-wash as a mental break.

The biggest hand wash spoiler is that we think we have something more important to be doing. Working in a busy emergency department I typically used to wash my hands hundreds of times a shift. And I always had plenty of pressing tasks demanding I cut my hand wash short.

One trick I used was to make every hand wash a trigger to take a quick mental break. Combining hand and head hygiene.

As you step up to the sink to wash your hands take a deep breath. Hand-washing is now a trigger to quiet your mind of all the thoughts racing around up there in your head, and focus on this one particular task.

You dont have to turn hand-washing into a mindfulness exercise if that sort of thing is not your jam. Just slow down and take 20 seconds (at least) because this is an important activity.

But if you do want to put a little zen into your toilet breaks, read on…..

hand washing as a quick meditation.

During the process of hand washing focus on your breath. The goal is not to slow or control you breath, but simply to become aware of it. To inhabit it.

Check that you are breathing down into your abdomen. Not just shallow breathing into the top of your chest.

Open your awareness to the sensations of the water on your hands. Experience its temperature, its slipperiness, the sensations as it tumbles amongst your fingers and over your hands.

Feel the soap as you apply it and lather it into your hands. Be aware of the sensations of contact between your hands and fingers and they interlace and rub against each other. Inhabit the feelings down in your fingers and hands as they move.

Maintain awareness of your breath throughout. If you want a specific guide on this, you want to be concentrating about 30% on your breath and 70% on the awareness of the hand-washing.

Continue to cultivate awareness as you rinse your hands and dry them. Really get into the whole activity. Remember it is going to take at least 20-60 seconds.

As you finish drying your hands, complete the exercise by returning your awareness to focus on your breath.


4 responses to “How well do you think you wash your hands? I’ll bet that you are rubbish.”

  1. Just a question – before washing hands, we turn the tap with the dirty hands, and then after washing hands, we touch the dirty tap with clean hands. So are we not making our hands dirty again.


  2. Like the idea of turning hand washing into a meditation. the uni I work for has just flooded all the toilets with hand washing posters due to the coronavirus scare, maybe that will help with the handwashing issue. I have a question though; how did your hands cope with all the hand washing? I find with regular hand washing and the use of antiseptic gels which we also use in the work place, my hands get incredibly dry and even irritated, I have started to become really fussy about what soap I use as it seems to be a worsening problem and certain detergents are more irritating than others and I have often wondered how do medical staff cope with all the hand washing?


    1. Hi Sharon,

      Irritant contact dermatitis is by far the most common cause problems for people who frequently wash their hands. It occurs with heavy use of hand hygiene products containing soap or detergents that lead to skin drying.
      The situation is exacerbated by frequent use of paper towels, especially if the towels are rubbed against the hands (instead of ‘dabbing’ or ‘patting’ them dry).

      Irritant contact dermatitis may be confused with Eczema of the hands (a very common skin condition). Although Eczema may also be exacerbated by frequent hand washing it is an inflammatory response originating from within the body rather than a reaction to an external irritant.

      If affected with contact dermatitis, your hands become dry, itchy, red. You may experience a burning sensation or stinging, and eventually your skin begins to flake and crack. Once established it can take many months for the dermatitis to completely clear.

      Some tips to prevent irritant dermatitis include:

      Use hand hygiene products that contain skin emollients. Leads to improvement in dermatitis in approximately 70% of cases.

      Use hand hygiene products correctly.

      Regular use of skin moisturisers.
      Ointments (which tend to be thicker and more greasy) can be used at home and before bed.
      Creams (slightly less greasy) are also good for use outside the work environment.

      After washing your hands, don’t forget to dry between your fingers and under any rings.

      Prescribed treatments such as topical corticosteroids or antibacterial ointments may be required in severe cases.

      Hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

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