Using the bathroom requires a lot of touching: opening the door, lifting the lid, wiping and flushing. You get germs on your hands with any one of these efforts.
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So, if you don’t wash your hands … well, think of everything you contaminate after exiting the bathroom. (For example, a recent study found that an antibiotic-resistant form of E. coli is spread more often by poor toilet hygiene than by handling raw meat!)
And a lot of people aren’t washing their hands after going to the bathroom. In one 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. And among hand washers, only 5% washed properly with soap for the recommended amount of time.
Family medicine doctor Daniel Allan, MD, explains why washing up on your way out of the bathroom is so critical — and how to do it right.
The importance of hand-washing
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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 — and then, in turn, onto other things.
“You can leave the bathroom with twice the bacteria on your hands as when you entered,” Dr. Allan says. “Studies show credit cards, money and cell phones are contaminated with fecal matter.”
The good news is that people who perform proper hand-washing have lower rates of diarrhea, viral infections (like the common cold) and foodborne illnesses. The CDC says proper hand-washing also reduces kids’ absenteeism at school from gastrointestinal illnesses by at least 29%.
Hand-washing how-to: a step-by-step guide
Given that 95% of people aren’t correctly washing their hands, here’s a quick lesson, compliments of Dr. Allan:
- Grab a towel and set it aside. (This will become important later.)
- Wet your hands thoroughly. The water temperature doesn’t matter.
- Apply soap and lather your hands: the backs, palms, fingers and under fingernails. Dr. Allan says you can use any type of soap.
- Scrub your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds. The average person spends just six seconds scrubbing, so if you think you’re a master hand-washer, 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 takes about 20 seconds.)
- Rinse your hands well.
- Take that reserved towel and use it to turn off the faucet (because you last touched it with dirty hands).
- 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 (like the elevator button, which has more bacteria on it than a toilet seat).
Does hand sanitizer work as well as hand-washing?
Hand sanitizer seems easier. But is it an adequate replacement for hand-washing? Dr. Allan says: “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 stomach bug 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.