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If washing our hands is so easy, why do some of us have such a hard time doing it? In honor of National Handwashing Week, read up on these five common mistakes you might make at the sink.

Rachel Swalin
December 11, 2014

Everyone masters hand-washing as a kid—or so you thought. In a 2013 Journal of Environmental Health study, just 5% of participants washed their hands long enough after using the bathroom. What's more, 23% didn't use soap, and 10% didn't bother to wash their hands at all. Gross!

Lathering up is one of the best things you can do to prevent the spread of germs, especially during cold and flu season. Read on for five mistakes you may be making.

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You skip handwashing on occasion

Failing to wash your hands after using the bathroom is just not OK. Your decision to leave without a rinse means you'll be dragging out your own germs and as well as the bacteria you picked up from the door lock, toilet flusher, and other surfaces. Then, you'll deposit those germs on anything you subsequently touch.

Not washing your hands allows these suckers to stick around, and that's bad news if you want to prevent illness. "Skin forms a nice barrier between us and the bugs," says Aileen Marty, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at Florida International University in Miami. "But mucosal surfaces, like your eyes, mouth, and genitals, are more porous so germs can get sucked in."

That means any germs you pick up in the bathroom can linger and potentially spread if you touch another porous area, particularly your mouth—not to mention they can get passed to another person who comes in contact with your dirty hands. Consider this: The average person touches his or her face 16 times an hour, says Charles Gerba, PhD, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona.

If you don't already, you should also wash your hands before eating or preparing a meal, so the food doesn't get contaminated either (hello, food poisoning!). The CDC has a few more suggestions on prime hand washing times, such as after taking out the trash or cleaning the kitty litter.

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You don't use soap

Soap does a lot more than make your hands smell nice. Soap is a chemical concoction made specifically for lifting sticky bugs off your skin. Since the surfaces of bacteria and viruses are made partly of fatty materials, ingredients in soap create a chemical reaction that grabs onto the germs so they rinse right off with the lather, Dr. Marty says.

Alcohol-based formulas can kill more germs faster than plain soap and water, adds Elaine Larson, PhD, a professor of epidemiology in nursing at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. But don't waste your time on antibacterial products with the ingredient triclosan. There's no evidence that these soaps work better than regular or alcohol-based soaps, and some studies suggest they may contribute to antibiotic resistance and have "unanticipated hormonal effects" in people over the long-term, according to a 2013 U.S. Food and Drug Administration consumer update. Additionally, no evidence exists proving that triclosan provides any clear benefit against bacterial contamination.

Another thing to keep in mind: Liquid soap tends to be more effective than bar soap because it's less likely to be contaminated, Dr. Marty says.

When you're in a pinch, a hand sanitizer that's made with at least 60% alcohol can help too, though it tends to be less effective on super-germy or greasy hands, per the CDC. That's why good old soap and water will always be the number-one choice.

You don't scrub long enough

Soap won't help if you rinse it off immediately. You need to scrub for at least 20 to 30 seconds, long enough to hum "Happy Birthday" twice. Use that time to rub both your palms, the backs of your hands, and between your fingers. Place one hand on top of the other and scrub with your fingers interlaced, then switch. That way you'll cover all sides of both sets of fingers.

One overlooked spot: your fingernails. "A lot of bacteria and viruses can get trapped there," Dr. Marty says. To clean underneath your nails, take your right hand and rub the tips of your fingers on the palm of your left hand and vice versa.

You always use hand dryers

"Studies show you're better off using paper towels," Dr. Marty says. The main problem is that people just don't use hand dryers for long enough for their hands to dry fully—the CDC recommends 30 to 45 seconds—and wet hands spread bacteria more readily than dry hands. Plus, recent research suggests that when people wash their hands poorly, hand dryers may then propel the germs from their hands around the bathroom, making the restroom a grosser place for everyone.

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You touch things right after washing

You put so much effort into washing your hands, don't mess it up by touching a grimy spot before you even exit the bathroom (remember, 10% of bathroom-goers don't bother to wash their hands, which means their germs are everywhere). Use a paper towel to turn off the water and a different one to dry your hands. Finally, grab another paper towel to take with you so you can use it as a barrier between your hand and the door before tossing it.

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