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As America continues to “fight” with COVID-19, a lot has been said about how important it is to wash your hands. Many people underestimate the power of proper handwashing, even if keeping your hands clean can protect you from germ spread, even though you should always wash your hands, not just in the midst of a virus outbreak.

Coronavirus has thought us that many people have a lot of questions about handwashing.

How long does it take to wash your hands? How does hand washing affect germ spread? And what is the difference between hand soap and hand sanitizer? Here are all your questions answered by the experts.

But don’t forget, hand washing is important, no matter what is going on in the world.

Such a simple habit like hand washing may prevent 1 in 5 respiratory illnesses and 1 in 3 diarrheal illnesses, Brian Katzowitz, a spokesperson from the US Centers for Disease Control, explains that if everyone routinely washed their hands, millions of deaths could be prevented every year, scientists estimate.

To understand why keeping your hands clean is so important, here’s what Didier Pittet, professor at and director of the Infection Control Programme and WHO Collaborating Centre on Patient Safety at the University of Geneva in Switzerland has to say.

Hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of germs

“In Switzerland currently, we don’t shake hands anymore; the way we did it during the Ebola season with the Ebola time in Africa,” Pittet tells Inverse. He also said that countries around the world will soon adopt this strategy too, just in case they haven’t already.

“The best and the most important strategy to prevent coronavirus spread and transmission is hand hygiene and social distancing,” Pittet says.

Wearing a mask is not necessary, Pittet says. The only moment that requires wearing a mask is if you are sick, and you know that you will get in contact with other people.

Basic hygiene and social etiquette matter, Pittet says. This includes blowing your nose into a tissue, and then throwing the tissue into the bin right away, sneezing away from people around you, and staying away from public areas if you are sick.

However, isolation and anticipating every sneeze isn’t always possible, this is why hand hygiene remains paramount.

“Hand hygiene is the most important way to prevent the transmission of coronavirus.”


Does handwashing with normal soap fight off coronavirus?

“Soap and water hand washing is absolutely fine and will eliminate or remove the coronavirus and this is very efficacious,” Pittet says.

When you have access to soap and water, you should wash your hands using the appropriate technique, Pittet says. The CDC recommends washing your hands for 20 seconds at least. I guess this is a short time to spare to protect yourself.

“In public toilets, in your home, anywhere you find; you can use soap and water hand washing, you don’t need to use a medicated soap. Plain soap would be okay without any problem,” Pittet says.

In hospitals and other healthcare settings, people may use alcohol-based hand rub instead of hand soap for more advanced protection, Pittet says. A lot of the benefits from alcohol-based hand rub come from the clinical setting in which it is used because using an alcohol-based hand rub is faster than hand-washing, and it ha the same effect with greater convenience.

However, you should now that these hand rubs tend to work best only when hands aren’t heavily soiled, greasy, or, indeed, dirty.

“This is the reason why in healthcare settings we, of course, prefer to use alcohol-based hand rub, unless the hands are soiled,” Pittet tells Inverse.


How often should I wash my hands?

“It typically depends on what you are doing,” Pittet says.

“It’s not necessary to do it every hour,” he says — but that would definitely ensure you’re keeping a good hygiene habit.

But different environments call for more fastidious washing, he adds.

“If you just touch the nose of your kids who are sick, you need to do it immediately after, and not wait for an hour until you do it,” he says. The same, if not more, care should be taken when caring for elderly people, who are among the demographics most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.

According to the CDC, you should wash your hands:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food and eating food
  • After using the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After changing diapers, or cleaning a child who has used the toilet
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste

Remember: Scrub the entirety of your hands, including your upper wrist (think palms, backs, fingers, under your nails), for at least 20 seconds. All in all, you might spend almost an hour of your day keeping your hands clean, Pittet says.


Is there a difference between hand soap and sanitizer?

There is a very clear difference, Pittet says.

Soap washes off the bacteria off your hands, that doesn’t apply for hand sanitizer.

“A soap is actually soap; any soap and water is actually removing the bacteria from your hands, and not killing the bacteria on your hands,” he says.

Alcohol hand rubs and hand sanitizers, by contrast, kill the germs on your hands. But they don’t clean the dirt from your hands, Pittet says.


How and when should I use hand sanitizer?

“It’s very convenient. It’s very appropriate. It’s very efficacious to have your alcohol-based hand rub with you and to apply a little bit of hand rub on your hands,” he says.

The appropriate amount to use at a time is “a palmful,” Pittet says. According to Pittet, you can either rub the hand sanitizer into your hands till your skin is dry or simply cover your hands with hand sanitizer and let it air dry.

According to a 2000 study in the Journal of Infection Control, researchers found that, across 16 elementary schools and around 6,000 students, the introduction of hand sanitizer in every classroom was linked to a 20 percent reduction in school absences.

“Elementary school absenteeism due to infection is significantly reduced when an alcohol gel hand sanitizer is used in the classroom as part of a hand hygiene program,” they write.

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