October 18, 2023/Primary Care

Why You Really Should Wash Your Hands After Using the Bathroom (Every Single Time!)

Technique matters — and research suggests most of us still aren’t doing it right

Closeup of a person washing their hands

Using the bathroom requires a lot of touching: Opening the door, lifting the lid, wiping and flushing. You’re guaranteed to get germs on your hands with each of these activities. And if you don’t wash your hands after using the bathroom, you risk contaminating everything (and everyone) you touch from then on.

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Washing your hands is important. It sounds obvious. In theory, it is obvious. Most of us know that it’s important to wash our hands after using the restroom. But it turns out we aren’t nearly as clean as we think we are — and a lot of people aren’t washing their hands after going to the bathroom.

In a 2013 study that examined the post-bathroom hand-washing behaviors of 3,749 people in the U.S., only 67% of them attempted to wash their hands with soap. Among the hand washers, only 5% actually washed properly with soap for the recommended amount of time. If that’s not enough to put you off your food, this will: A 2019 study found that an antibiotic-resistant form of E. coli is spread more often by poor toilet hygiene than by handling raw meat!

Has handwashing behavior improved since the COVID-19 pandemic began? Probably. But bad habits can be hard to break. And research suggests that we need periodic reminders about the importance of hand hygiene, especially during those time when we’re tired or stressed out. That’s why we asked family medicine doctor Daniel Allan, MD, to explain why washing up on your way out of the bathroom is so critical — and how to do it right.

The importance of handwashing

How do we know that handwashing is important? We know because, unfortunately, plenty of people around the world aren’t able to properly clean their hands. According to a 2022 study by UNICEF, 25% of the world’s population still doesn’t have access to handwashing facilities with both soap and water in their homes. And the consequences are staggering. An estimated 1.4 million people — 400,000 of them children — die every year from diseases that could have been prevented with basic hand hygiene.

Let’s get into the specifics. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), germs like Salmonella, E.coli and norovirus (just to name a few) can get onto your hands after using the toilet or changing a diaper. Once those germs make it onto your hands, it’s only a matter of time until they make it onto other things, surfaces and people.

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“You can leave the bathroom with twice the bacteria on your hands as when you entered,” Dr. Allan states. “Studies show credit cards, money and cell phones are contaminated with fecal matter.” And we’re not talking about a few germs, here. Another study found that elevator buttons have more bacteria on them than toilet seats do!

Now that we’ve given you the good news, it’s time for the good news: People who wash their hands correctly have lower rates of diarrhea, viral infections (like the common cold) and foodborne illnesses. The CDC says proper hand hygiene also reduces kids’ absenteeism at school from gastrointestinal illnesses by at least 29%.

Handwashing how-to: a step-by-step guide

Given that somewhere in the neighborhood of 95% of people probably aren’t washing their hands correctly, here’s a quick lesson, compliments of Dr. Allan:

  1. If there’s one available where you are, grab a towel and set it aside. (This will become important later.)
  2. Wet your hands thoroughly. The water temperature doesn’t matter.
  3. Apply soap and lather your hands. And when we say “hands,” we mean your wrists, the back of your hands, your palms, around and in-between your fingers and under your fingernails. Dr. Allan says you can use any type of soap to get the job done.
  4. Scrub your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds. Pre-COVID-19, the average person spent just six seconds scrubbing, so if you think you’re a master handwasher, you might be mistaken. Your kids (or you) may find it helpful to sing a song when washing your hands. (FYI, singing the ABC song all the way through at a moderate pace — or singing “Happy Birthday” twice — takes about 20 seconds.)
  5. Rinse your hands well.
  6. Take that reserved towel and use it to turn off the faucet (because you last touched it with dirty hands).
  7. Dry your hands thoroughly. “Drying is important,” Dr. Allan says. “Damp hands are 1,000 times more likely to pick up bacteria than dry hands.”

If you’re feeling savvy, use the towel to open the bathroom door on your way out. That could limit contamination elsewhere.

When to wash your hands

By now, we’ve firmly established that you should wash your hands after going to the bathroom. But that’s not the only time it’s important to get your scrub on. The CDC recommends turning on the tap:

  • Whenever food’s involved. That means before, during and after meal prep, as well as before eating.
  • When helping others in the bathroom. Whether you’re changing a diaper, potty training a toddler or assisting somebody who can’t use the restroom on their own, it’s important to make sure everybody’s hands are thoroughly washed and dried.
  • When tending to sick or injured people. If you’re treating a cut or wound — or you’re taking care of somebody who has gastrointestinal issues like vomiting or diarrhea — you need to take extra precautions.
  • When animals are involved. You might not run to the sink every single time you pet Fido, but you absolutely should if you touch an animal that isn’t yours. Same goes for handling animal food, feed, treats or waste.
  • When the equation includes garbage. Whether you’re taking out the trash, doing a load of dishes or straightening up after a party, make sure your hand hygiene is on point.
  • Whenever your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. We probably don’t need to explain that one.

Does hand sanitizer work as well as handwashing?

Hand sanitizer sometimes seems easier than washing your hands — and in certain situations, it’s the only option available. But is it an adequate replacement for handwashing?

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Dr. Allan’s verdict: “Something is better than nothing — just be sure the sanitizer has at least 60% alcohol.”

There are a few downsides to hand sanitizers, however. They:

  • Aren’t as effective if your hands are dirty or greasy.
  • Don’t remove chemicals, heavy metals or substances that could make you sick.
  • Don’t kill all diarrhea-causing germs, including some parasites, the norovirus or Clostridium difficile (C. diff).

If you’re in a pinch and alcohol-based hand sanitizer is your only option, follow these steps:

  • Apply enough sanitizer to cover every part of your hand.
  • Rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds or until your hands are dry.

Take your health into your own hands

Life is busy. And it’s understandable that our post-bathroom handwashing routines aren’t always perfect. It’s understandable, but it isn’t great — for our health or anybody else’s.

So, if you’re fortunate enough to have access to a sink, soap, clean water and fresh towels, take a moment (20 seconds, to be precise) to really enjoy them! Being clean is a wonderful feeling — and it’s just what the doctor ordered.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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