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Why We Need to Wash Our Hands

So, you washed your hands this morning? Bravo! Because you don't want to spread potentially dangerous germs. And because experts remind us that our hands can hold from a million to a billion invisible bacteria.

But think back to those few minutes -- or were they mere seconds -- before the wash basin today.

Did you use hot water? Did you lather up for 15 to 30 seconds? Did you get under the fingernails -- a prime spot for germs?

It seems like such a simple task. But hand-washing, if not an art, is certainly a bit of science we all need brushing up on. Because even though you washed today, surveys show that too many people didn't -- or did so haphazardly -- even after obvious tasks such as changing a diaper or using a rest room. Or -- most critically -- before they handled food.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of all food-related illnesses are caused by unwashed or poorly washed hands.

If you're a regular hand-washer, fine. But check your technique against this advice from the American Society for Microbiology:

  • Wash in warm or hot running water. Hot water is much more effective than cold at dissolving oils and dirt on your skin's surface. But don't stop there. Simply running water over your hands is not nearly enough.

  • Use soap. Antibacterial soaps kill bacteria but may not provide any benefit over adequate washing with plain soap. All soaps work to break up and dissolve the substances -- primarily mucus, fecal material and food residue -- that likely contain disease-causing germs. While your hands harbor millions of bacteria, the dangerous ones arrive in these materials.

  • Rub your lathered hands together for about 15 seconds. (Tell children to scrub for as long as it takes them to sing their ABCs.) The rubbing action helps to further loosen any material still adhering to the skin. Remember to clean the palms and back of the hands and between the fingers and around and under the nails.