When should you wash your hands?

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Every cold and flu season, doctors never fail to remind us that one of the best defenses against the common cold, flu, and other icky illnesses is as simple as it gets: washing your hands.

First, get your hands wet

Wet your hands under clean running water. Despite what you’ve heard, hot water isn’t your only option. “There’s no difference in cleaning power whether the water is cold or pretty comfortably warm.

Then, lather up

That soft, gooey bar soap may look as if it’s hosting a germ field day, but any soap is better than none. It doesn’t matter if you use liquid or bar soap at home or in public places—both do the job, as does foam soap, an aerated version of the liquid variety.

Get to scrubbing

A 20 seconds wash is more effective than five seconds, so go for at least 20 (or the amount of time it takes to hum “Happy Birthday” from beginning to end twice.) Once you’ve lathered up for long enough, rise your hands thoroughly under clean, running water.

Dry your hands properly

A recent study from UConn Health found that after people held clean hands under a dryer for a minute, new bacteria could wind up on hands. The dryers stir up bacteria already in the bathroom, depositing some of it on once-clean mitts. If there’s a towel option, that’s a good first choice.

When should you wash your hands?

The CDC says certain situations should always be followed by proper hand washing, including the following:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

In general, if your hands feel dirty—say, you just got home from work after taking public transportation or picking up groceries—it doesn’t hurt to give them a good wash.

Hand soap vs. hand sanitizer: Which is more effective?

If your hands are visibly dirty, old-school soap and water is the way to go, because the action of rubbing and rinsing dislodges bacteria and viruses. “Hand sanitizers must contact germs to damage and kill them,” and dirt can be a barrier.

But if soap and water aren’t available and your hands aren’t filthy, does hand sanitizer work? Yes, an alcohol-based sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol can do the trick in a pinch. Cover all surfaces of your hands, and keep rubbing until they’re dry (don’t wipe it off!).