Friday, June 12, 2009

Handwashing: A Home Experiment

We have all heard about the importance of hand washing. This is a message we have received since we were children. We know that it stops the spread of disease as well as the common cold. But how many of us do it on a regular basis? And even if we do it on a regular basis, are we doing it correctly? I decided to find out if I was following the appropriate hand washing rules.

Here is a checklist on the rules of washing your hands from the Mayo clinic:

  • Wet your hands with warm, running water and apply liquid soap or use clean bar soap. Lather well.
  • Rub your hands vigorously together for at least 15 to 20 seconds
  • Scrub all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails
  • Rinse well
  • Dry your hands with a clean or disposable towel
  • Use a towel to turn off the faucet

Here is a list of when you should wash your hands:

  • Use the toilet,
  • Touch uncooked meat, poultry, fish or eggs or other food from animals,
  • Interrupt food preparation to answer the phone, open a door or drawer, etc.
  • Smoke,
  • Touch dirty plates, utensils or equipment,
  • Take out trash,
  • Touch your notes, mouth or any part of your body,
  • Sneeze or cough,
  • Change diapers,
  • Touch pets.

My Experience:

After looking at the hand washing requirements put out by the Mayo clinic I realized that there were several areas that I was not following. First, I rub my hands together for approximately 5 seconds before rinsing off the soap rather than 15 – 20 seconds. Second, I do not always rub the backs of my hands while washing them. Third, I never use a clean cloth to turn off the faucet. Fourth, often times I am interrupted during my cooking to answer the phone or open a drawer. I do not wash my hands before returning to food preparation after I have done these things. In fact, I often talk on the phone while doing food preparation.

I decided to follow the hand washing recommendations given by the Mayo clinic for one week to see how big of a difference it would make in my life. It turns out it made a big difference. These are the findings of my own personal experiment:

Rubbing your hands together for 15 – 20 seconds before rinsing them seems like a very long time when you are busy.

There were times when it was just not possible to rub my hands together for a full 20 seconds every time I washed my hands. For example, I was feeding my baby a bottle when my 2 year old needed help going potty. I put my baby down and took a break from feeding her the bottle in order to help my 2 year old. Several minutes later, as I was finishing up helping my 2 year old go potty, my baby had decided that she had waited long enough and wanted her bottle back NOW. I could not justify rubbing my hands together for a full 20 seconds while my baby screamed for her bottle, so a quick 5 second rub had to suffice.

However, when I was able to take the time to rub my hands together for a full 20 seconds I did notice that my hands seemed softer and cleaner.

At home it was easier to use a clean cloth to turn off the faucet than I thought it would be.

I simply kept a clean wash cloth hung over the towel bar and used that every time I needed to turn off the faucet. I used the same wash cloth for a day and then threw it in the laundry with the other towels. It makes me wonder though if the wash cloth became contaminated as the day wore on because it touched the handle so many times. Additionally, I did this for each of the three sinks I use so it increased my wash cloth laundry by quite a bit.

It was quite easy to work in washing the backs of my hands while doing my regular routine washings.

By becoming aware that I was not washing the backs of my hands it became quite easy to simply work that step into my hand washing routine.

It was extremely difficult to wash my hands after opening a drawer or talking on the phone before returning to food preparation.

This was nearly impossible with a baby and a toddler running around the house. To get my daughter to play by herself while I am cooking a meal is a feat in itself and if she needs me to grab her some more markers or a toy from the top shelf in order for her to continue to play by herself you can bet that I am going to fulfill her request. This type of request happens about 10 times during the course of my dinner preparation.

To wash my hands for 20 seconds each time I get this type of request would cause dinner preparation to take an enormous amount of time. After the first day I realized this was an unreasonable recommendation for me to work into my daily routine.

I increased my hand washing frequency by about double

Because I was overly aware of when I was supposed to be washing my hands I increased my hand washing frequency enormously. This in turn made the skin on my hands a lot dryer so I used a larger amount of hand lotion during this experiment. I also went through a lot more hand soap.


After doing this experiment I will continue to follow as many of the guidelines put out by the Mayo clinic as I can but there are several that I will just not be able to comply with 100% of the time. I certainly feel a lot cleaner since making an effort to work these guidelines into my life and hope that by being more diligent with my hand washing that I will be able to avoid getting a cold this year!

One additional interesting item to note is that using warm soapy water is more effective than cold soapy water at removing the oils from your hands that hold dirt and/or bacteria however our hands could never stand water that is hot enough to kill any kind of bacteria. In order to get the water hot enough to kill bacteria it would scald our hands. This information and more can also be found at the Mayo Clinic web site.

Stay tuned for a future post about antibacterial cleansers!

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