Ditch the face mask and use some good ol' soap and water.

By Leah Groth
March 02, 2020

As the novel coronavirus disease—now known as COVID-19—continues to spread across the globe (and the US), it's important to know the doctor-recommended ways to best protect yourself from the virus—and, unfortunately, wearing a face mask (yes, even an N95 respirator mask) isn't one of them.

Your best bet for protection? Washing your hands—not only regularly, but correctly. “Washing your hands is easy, and it’s one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs,” explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Clean hands can stop germs from spreading from one person to another and throughout an entire community—from your home and workplace to childcare facilities and hospitals.”

Seems simple enough, right? But a recent study conducted by the US Department of Agriculture found that 97% of the time, people aren't washing their hands correctly, either by failing to dry their hands completely afterwards, or not taking enough time to let the soap and water work their magic.

Luckily, the CDC's got your back: The organization has specific handwashing guildelines—a five-step process, to be exact—based on science-backed data. The entire process takes about 30 seconds to complete; a small time investment for ensuring your health. Here's how to wash your hands the right way:

1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap

Running water is the best method for washing hands, as “hands could become recontaminated if placed in a basin of standing water that has been contaminated through previous use,” the CDC explains. If you are curious about whether hot or cold water is better, according to the health organization, temperature does not appear to affect microbe removal. However, they do point out that warmer water may cause more skin irritation and is more environmentally costly. 

To help save water (and make sure no germs are transferred between your hands and the faucet), turn off the faucet before applying soap. This step is key: Using soap to wash hands is much more effective than using water alone. That's because the surfactants in soap lift soil and microbes from skin. Using soap also helps most of us scrub our hands a little more thoroughly. Fortunatey, the type of soap doesn't matter, per the CDC: Scientific studies have proved there are no added health benefits for consumers (not including healthcare professionals) using antibacterial soaps compared with using plain soap. 

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2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap.

Rub your hands together with the soap, making sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails (you can do this by scrubbing the nails of one hand on the palm of your other hand). "Lathering and scrubbing hands creates friction, which helps lift dirt, grease, and microbes from skin," the CDC explains, adding that you should pay special attention to your fingernails. "Microbes are present on all surfaces of the hand, often in particularly high concentration under the nails, so the entire hand should be scrubbed," per the CDC.

3. Keep rubbing your hands together for at least 20 seconds.

Don't have a timer on you? That's ok; the CDC suggests humming the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice. To switch things up a bit, other alternatives include singing the alphabet, or, if you know it, "God Save The Queen," according to various Twitter users.

Whatever you choose to sing, just keep that 20-second time limit in mind. While few studies about the potential health impacts of altering handwashing times have been done, those that do exist suggest that washing hands for about 15-30 seconds removes more germs from hands than washing for shorter periods, says the CDC. 

4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water

So, you know all the dirt, grease, and microbes washing with soap and water lifted off your hands? Rinsing your hands off after scrubbing them actually removes all of that gross stuff—including disease-causing germs like coronavirus, per the CDC. Using clean, running water for this step is also important, since it prevents hands from becoming recontaminated.

RELATED: 12 Myths About Coronavirus, According to the World Health Organization

5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Proper handwashing techniques don't end as soon as the water is turned off. It's important to thoroughly dry your hands—either with a clean towel, a paper towel, or via air-dryer. "Germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands; therefore, hands should be dried after washing,” explains the CDC. Whichever method you use, just make sure your hands are completely dry before you touch anything else. 

6. In a pinch, use hand sanitizer.

If you can’t wash your hands, the CDC suggests using a hand sanitizer with 60-95% alcohol (don't worry—whatever bottle you pick up will tell you how much alcohol it contains). While soap and water is the preferred method for removing certain kinds of germs, like c.diff and the ever-terrifying norovirus, alcohol-based hand sanitizers can inactivate many types of microbes very effectively when used correctly.

However, there is a proper way to use hand sanitizer, as well: The CDC suggests applying the product to the palm of one hand (the label of the product should have the correct amount listed). Then, rub the product all over the surfaces of your hands until your hands are dry. “Instructing people to cover all surfaces of both hands with hand sanitizer has been found to provide similar disinfection effectiveness as providing detailed steps for rubbing-in hand sanitizer,” the CDC adds.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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