HOWTO wash your hands and beat the flu

Making Light's James D Macdonald has some sterling advice for avoiding the flu this season -- there's lots you can do, but nothing's more important than washing your hands.
Which brings us back to the main point of this post: How to Wash Your Hands. Wash your hands before and after preparing food, after using the toilet, and any time they are grossly contaminated. (In between, use pump-action alcohol-based hand-sanitizer.) The single best way to prevent the flu is to wash your hands. But not everyone knows how to do it. Here's how:

1) Turn on the water and get it to a temperature you like.
2) Lather up using soap. (Soap does not kill germs. A bar of soap is a great medium for growing germs. The surfactant action of soap helps the running water flush the germs away. That's how it works. It's purely mechanical. Antibacterial soap is a waste of time and money, and just helps breed antibiotic-resistant bugs.)
3) Rub your hands vigorously together, paying special attention to the fingernails, getting up onto the wrists, for as long as it takes you to sing one stanza of The Star Spangled Banner or two verses of Little Mattie Groves.
4) Rinse off the soap with the running water.
5) Dry your hands with a paper towel.
6) Use the expended paper towel to turn off the water.



  1. 7) Use that same expended paper towel to open the badly designed bathroom door (that opens inside instead of out, forcing patrons to pull a handle when trying to exit).

  2. Great tips on something so simple yet overlooked. How long’s one stanza or two verses for those who don’t know those songs?

  3. You forgot the classic final step, carefully-etched into thousands of electric hand dryers across the nation:

    “Wipe hands on pants.”

  4. I’m not convinced that soap doesn’t kill bacteria. I was pretty sure that the surfactant action of soap does dissolve many bacteria (bacteri?) cell walls. Put some soapy water into a culture of bacteria and end up with one dead, or mostly dead culture. I’m not discounting the mechanical action. That is probably just as important.

  5. Mmmyeah…#2 is substantially inaccurate.

    It’s not true that soap is good at growing germs: if it were, there would be visible colonies all over the bar in your shower, especially if you let it sit for a few days.

    Nor is it true that surfactant slipperiness is the only mechanism by which soap acts to kill bacteria: surfactants (also known as “detergents” in technical parlance) disrupt microbial cell membranes, directly causing bacterial death.

    If you need more convincing of this, split a quart of milk between several dishwasher-clean jars or tupperwares, to which increasing amounts of liquid soap have been added (0, 1/8 tsp, 1/4 tsp, 1/2 tsp…etc.). If soap were good for bacteria, the highest soap dose should noticeably spoil (i.e., have a detectable bacterial load) first. On the other hand, if soap kills bacteria by some means other than washing them away, then the lowest dose of soap (0) should spoil first. (Milk, even pasteurized milk, has enough bacteria that it will spoil eventually, as we all know from leaving cartons in the fridge for too long.)

    My qualifications, in case you care: B.S. in biology, Ph.D. in biochemistry. But don’t believe me; believe the experiment.

    It is true that antibacterial soap is next to useless, since the bacteria aren’t exposed to the antibiotic for long enough for killing to take place. As the author points out, these products are worse than useless, since the low-level antibiotic exposure does re-jigger the bacterial fitness landscape enough to encourage the evolution of antibiotic resistance.

  6. A couple things:
    1) Unless your hands are visibly soiled, alcohol hand rubs do a far better job than soap.
    2) I’ve never seen a study showing hand washing helps in non-healthcare/non-school/non-3rd world settings. Does anyone have a paper showing efficacy with industrialized healthy adults? I’ve always had a suspicion that handwashing in the noise compared to indoor plumbing and other industrialized health amenities.

  7. That’s some seriously wasteful hand washing.. and I’m not convinced it will make you any healthier. Paper towels every time you wash your hands?? Alcohol hand sanitizer in addition to regular washing? Sheesh. No thanks.

  8. Regarding soap killing bacteria, I can’t boast a degree in Biology, but I do remember an experiment we performed in my Freshman Biology lab.

    We dipped little cirlces of paper into dishes of water containing dissolved soaps of various brands, then put the circles into petri dishes containing some kind of bacterial culture. After X amount of time (an hour? a week? I don’t remember), we looked to see which brand of soap had killed the bacteria to the greatest radius from the circle of paper.

    The winner: Dial
    The loser: Neutrogena

    This isn’t inconsistent with Mycophage’s post, though, as the soap was certainly in contact with the bacteria for far, far longer than it would be in a hand-washing situation.

  9. (first of all I am not the Canadian Massage Therapist that had no originality and stole my psuedonym from another online post) Secondly, if you go into the movie theater and touch any part of your seat, handrail, the napkin dispenser, concession counter, soda cup, candy box or even the popcorn butter pump you have defeated all the efforts you placed in washing your hands (did i mention your handling of your ticket stub?). If you really want to avoid communicable diseases in public situations then take your vitamins and eat right. Keeping your body healthy and your immune system in optimum shape is the only way to avoid infection to which you might succumb. The point being that a little bacteria and viral contamination helps keep up the white blood cell count and therfore a postive defense mechanism.
    And ladies if you place your purse on the floor, or even hang it on the handle of your bathroom stall…what is the point of ruining your heels and your balance by using your foot to flush?
    Paranoia will destroy ya’. Get tough, be smart and above all…cough or sneeze back at the asshole who refuses to cover their mouth.

  10. Even if it doesn’t work against bacteria, you might avoid getting an infestation of pinworm in the intestine.

  11. I prefer to use my white blood cells to keep the flu at bay. To keep them in prime disease-fighting form, I eat healthy food, get a good night’s sleep, exercise reasonably, and don’t stress too much.

    When (and if) I wash my hands, it is usually just with water, and only for about two seconds; I wipe my hands on my pants; I touch door-handles fearlessly and shake hands with whomever; I eat food that falls on the floor, or that is well past its best-before date… And I have barely EVER had the flu, and get colds no more often (and with much less severity) than most people I know.

    People I know who have always washed their hands as thoroughly as this post suggests (and who I’d say are OCD) seem to me to be ALWAYS getting sick. IMHO, bacteria and germs and your exposure to them don’t have that much to do with getting sick– you’re going to be exposed to SOME of these things no matter what, even if you are successful in reducing the numbers. Having healthy-immune-system is the thing you are after.

  12. Being a musician, I had to look up Mattie Groves. The midi file can be heard at:

    It take about 15 seconds per verse, so that would be 30 seconds total. A much easier song (since I’m sure most people, including myself can’t hum Mattie Groves) is Row, Row, Row Your Boat which takes about 7-8 seconds per verse. It was suggested to me by an RN, so I know it will work!

    Now let’s see—that makes 4 verses to reach about 30 seconds….and you’ll have the added benefit of having RRRYB going through your head the rest of the day!

  13. Regardless of method, don’t touch your nose or eyes until your hands are clean. Think of mucous (home sweet home for viruses) and don’t pick your nose or work something out of the corner of your eye with your finger after handling your cell phone, restroom pull handle, or paying money and taking change at the coffee shop. Don’t you love it when the antiseptically gloved sandwich maker goes to the register and makes change for you?

  14. We have a symbiotic relationship with many bacteria on our skin and in our gut. The relationship being “We’ll let you stay if you don’t harm us too much and keep out the really nasty folks that want to trash the place. Be a good guest, deal?”

    Life is a balance. Living like a pig, probably not good. Living with a sterile skin and gut, also probably not good.

  15. Influenza is the result of infection by a virus.
    Same is true for the common cold.
    Viruses are not the same thing as bacteria.

    To come up with a strategy which minimizes the risk of becoming infected you need to consider the complete ‘life cycle’ of the infectious agent, your chance of exposure and amount of exposure to the agent and the risk of your becoming infected upon exposure in all the different ways that might happen.

    For all the righteous/fearless people who are under the illusion that they are ‘priming’ their immune system against colds and ‘flu by deliberately indulging in risky behaviour, well, please don’t sneeze in my direction. Because you are going to get infected.

  16. “Soap does not kill germs. A bar of soap is a great medium for growing germs. The surfactant action of soap helps the running water flush the germs away. That’s how it works. It’s purely mechanical. Antibacterial soap is a waste of time and money, and just helps breed antibiotic-resistant bugs.”

    These are scientific claims. People who include such claims in their blogs need to learn to attribute their sources, preferably from case-controlled, double-blind studies from a peer-reviewed journal.

    If these statements are true, and I am pretty skeptical of the claim that “a bar of soap is a great medium for growing germs”, actually laughably so, then it shouldn’t be that hard to cite empirical evidence.

    Otherwise, this is just garbage information.

  17. Row row r…..yeah, thanks, buddy.

    I had a friend who was a biologist. One day he noticed a little grime on the little handle you push down to get on of the bulk straws at the theatre.
    He just happened to have a sterile swab in his shirt pocket and took a culture.
    Holy crap! He recommended staying the hell away from all unwrapped straws. To this day if I need to get a straw out of one of those things, I decrease my odds of typhus by opening up the lid and using a napkin to gingerly pick out one without ever soiling the others.
    Oh sure I may contaminate them a little but it’s not a little contamination we’re worrying about now, is it?
    And I wash MY hands after I use the bathroom, which is a lot better than 75% of men. Alright , the secrets out! 75% of guys don’t wash their hands unless they actually get poop smeared all over them.

  18. I’m with D913 above: just because someone wrote it on their blog doesn’t make it true. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true. This is the type of info my mom loves to forward to me and her 500 closest email contacts.

  19. In a bar I figure it’s more unsanitary to touch
    the bathroom faucet handles than to not wash
    after I go to the bathroom. I never wash my
    hands in a bar.

    What about the lever you have to pull to
    get the paper towels in some bathrooms?
    Am I the only one who wonders whether the
    person who touched the thing before me
    might have had the toilet paper tear
    and got some crap on his fingers?
    I hate those things. Tri-fold towels are
    better. You only have to touch the paper
    towel that you use.

  20. Washing your hands after using the bathroom may be bad social etiquette, but it’s absolutely not necessary, in any sense, and doesn’t help prevent the flu. Ask yourself what in the world flu germs would be doing hanging around your genitals or rear end, and how they got there.

    In fact, if anything, washing your hands after using the bathroom would likely increase your chances of getting sick out of it. Think of it; you touch the faucet that dozens, maybe hundreds of others touched BEFORE washing their hands. Afterwards, you fondle the towel dispenser/air dryer that many others have used.

    Personally, I haven’t had the flu in years, and I could be said to wash my hands rarely. Don’t worry, I’m not working in the food industry. It’s not so much about obsessive compulsive hand washing habits as about common sense. Avoid making out with people who may be sick. Don’t eat food prepared by somebody that’s sneezed all over it. Above all, before engaging in cannibalistic rituals, be sure the person you’re eating is in good health.

  21. Ever wonder why doctor’s don’t get sick more often? They wash their hands every 15 minutes. My doctor once told me that the friction (heat) caused by vigorously rubbing one’s hands by washing is what kills most of the microbes.

  22. “Mattie Groves” threw me for a sec, then I realized I learned it as “Shady Grove”.

    At any rate, not having the greatest immune system (e.g., someone sneezes on television and I get the flu), a couple of years ago I adopted a regime of handwashing during flu season that Lady Macbeth would envy.

    I can’t say I’ve been bugfree, but the number of colds and other respiratory infections has been noticeably less.

    Actually considering those hands-free faucets for home, not just for sanitary reasons, but because they’re just tres geek…but I can’t figure out where to buy ‘em.

  23. Timing is everything…I scrolled further down BB and found a mention about a new deluxe-o-matic edition of those sensor-op faucets right above a blurb about a disgraced truffle-squishing chocolatier. Wahoo!

  24. IIRC, the intended utility of antibacterial soap is to stop user-to-user contamination via germs left on the soap. This means that they probably do get a long enough exposure to be killed.

  25. By the way, the “Jeopardy!” theme song is 30 seconds long. If you want to wash your hands for 30 seconds, just hum that.

  26. Here’s a question for the esteemed minds gathered here – someone told me that contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not kill all bacteria and virii. They said that the alcohol’s main purpose is to effectively wipe or soak away the bodily oils that harbor these things, not to kill the flora itself. If this is true, why would hand-sanitizers work at all, since you are just sloshing it all around until it dries up?

    I searched for more info on this, but most of what I found was unsourced info – anyone know conclusively whether alcohol is the full-spectrum germicide that the hand-sanitizer industry wants us to think it is?

  27. No way the heat from rubbing your hands together kills anything. How much heat do you *feel* when you rub your hands together, even dry (with far more friction)? Most microorganisms are almost certainly able to at least briefly stand temperatures that you’d consider painfully hot. The autoclave in our lab runs with pressurized steam at about 120 degrees (C) for 15 minutes, which is, to be sure exactly the kind of overkill you’d want in a microbiology lab, but still, that’s about the order of magnitude you’re looking at for killing bugs via heat.

    Incidentally, the flu virus may indeed, not be “hanging around your genitals or rear end” but just google “fecal oral transmission” to learn all the fun bugs that *would* be lingering there :)

  28. ‘Incidentally, the flu virus may indeed, not be “hanging around your genitals or rear end” but just google “fecal oral transmission” to learn all the fun bugs that *would* be lingering there :)’

    I fear for people that’re handling fecal matter before handling their food. Personally, I generally use toilet paper when I’m wiping, so I don’t have to handle fecal matter.

  29. Don’t think of washing your hands after using the restroom so much as washing away all the germs that got on your hands from handling yourself.

    Think of it as a practical time and location to wash off whatever you may have picked up in the hours prior to entering the restroom.

    Don’t touch your face and clean your keyboard, mouse and desk once in a while (see: biofilms).

Comments are closed.