How to Properly Wash Your Hands

Medically Reviewed By: Catherine Meador, MD, and Eleni Stavrou, MD

Practicing proper hand hygiene is a simple, yet extremely effective, way of preventing the spread of germs and diseases. By washing your hands properly, and often, you can protect yourself as well as your family and even the community you live in.

When should I wash my hands?

When in doubt, wash! It’s important to keep hand-washing top of mind because this practice is an effective way to stop germs from spreading. It’s better to wash your hands too often than not enough, especially during the following instances:

  • Before leaving your house and after you have arrived at your destination
  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • After using the bathroom or changing a diaper
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal (even pets), and or their food/treats

How do I properly wash my hands?

Follow the five-step process below to ensure you’re practicing proper hand hygiene:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water. It does not matter whether the water is cold or warm. After you’ve wet your hands, turn off the faucet before applying soap. 
  2. Use soap generously and cover both hands entirely.
  3. Vigorously scrub your hands together for 20 seconds to ensure you’re cleaning the following areas: palms, back of hands/fingers, between fingers, thumbs, all 10 fingernails, fingertips, and wrists.   
  4. Turn the water back on and rinse your hands completely. Wait to turn off the faucet until after you have dried your hands.
  5. Dry your hands thoroughly. When possible, dry your hands with a towel before using that towel to turn off the faucet. Using an electric hand dryer can be an effective alternative as long as you are completely drying your hands.

This same technique should be used for children, and parents are encouraged to wash their hands together with their children to both ensure the proper technique is being used and to reinforce the importance of this habit.  

What hand soap should I use?

When it comes to hand soap, the brand you use doesn’t matter, nor does the form it comes in. If you choose bar soap over liquid soap, just make sure to keep the soap dish clean, as a dirty dish can contain germs. Furthermore, there is currently no evidence that there is an advantage to using antibacterial soap over plain soap and water. Again, the most important thing is that you are washing your hands completely and thoroughly for 20 seconds.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be used as an alternative if you do not have access to soap and clean running water. If you are using a hand sanitizer, make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends you still try to wash your hands with soap and water as soon as you can.

“Hand washing mechanically removes pathogens, while laboratory data demonstrate that 60% ethanol and 70% isopropanol, the active ingredients in CDC-recommended alcohol-based hand sanitizers, inactivates viruses that are genetically related to, and with similar physical properties as, the 2019-nCoV,” the CDC says of COVID-19.

However, alcohol-based hand sanitizers do not kill all types of germs (such as some germs that cause certain stomach bugs). Note that hand sanitizers are also not an effective way to clean hands that are visibly dirty.

Just as with normal hand washing, make sure to completely cover your hands and rub them together until they are dry; this should take around 20 seconds. Do not rinse or wipe off the hand sanitizer before your hands are dry.