Featured Wellness

Are your hands clean? Five facts that might surprise you

Did you know that in Canada, healthcare-associated infections affect more than 220,000 people every year? Hand hygiene is a very simple action that saves lives, and it is the best defence against the spread of antimicrobial resistant organisms.

Today is “Save Lives, Clean Your Hands” Day, and what better way to recognize it than with some hand washing myth busting? We talked to Dr. Mary Vearncombe, Medical Director, Infection Prevention and Control at Sunnybrook, who set the record straight on five hand washing myths:

1. What’s the best water temperature for washing my hands- cold, warm or hot?

You’re right if you guessed… warm! Surprised? “Using very hot or very cold water makes it less likely that you’ll wash your hands for long enough,” says Dr. Vearncombe. Plus, warm water is nicer to the sensitive skin on our hands. Remember, the action of rubbing soap on your hands is what lifts dirt and bacteria off your hands, which is then rinsed away by the water. You’re not going to ‘kill’ any bacteria by using scalding hot water to wash your hands!

2. How long do I need to wash my hands in order for them to be properly washed?

The minimum amount of time is 15 seconds. And that means 15 full seconds of rubbing soap in your hands (the time spent turning the taps on and off, and drying your hands, doesn’t count). One trick to make sure you’ve washed your hands for long enough? “It also takes 15 seconds to sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ in your head, so if you sing that to yourself while washing your hands, they should be properly cleaned by the end,” says Dr. Vearncombe.

3. What’s the best way to dry my hands?

Using a hand dryer that blows hot air is a no-no. “The action of blowing from the hand dryers stirs up all kinds of bacteria from the floor, and other parts of the room,” says Dr. Vearncombe. Instead, paper towels or towels are the best methods for drying your hands. Use them to blot your hands dry, rather than rubbing them, so you aren’t being as hard on your hands.

4. Are hand sanitizers more effective than soap and water?

Yes, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is as good as, if not better than, soap and water (as long as your hands aren’t visibly soiled). There are a number of reasons that hand sanitizer is the better choice, according to Dr. Vearncombe:

  1. The alcohol in hand sanitizer kills bacteria, while soap and water only removes it
  2. Hand sanitizers have moisturizers in them, which keeps the skin on your hands in better condition (especially if you work in health care and have to wash your hands often)
  3. It’s faster. You still need to rub the sanitizer into your hands for 15 seconds, but that’s all you need to do- no adjusting the water temperature, drying your hands, etc.
  4. Hand sanitizer can be where you need it, when you need it. It’s not always possible to have running water and soap nearby, but it is possible to have hand sanitizer within arm’s reach.

5. Do alcohol hand sanitizers cause bacterial mutation and resistance?

No, they do not. “This has been researched multiple times, but no evidence of bacterial mutation or resistance from alcohol hand sanitizer has ever been demonstrated,” says Dr. Vearncombe.

About the author

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar is the Communications Advisor for the Ross Tilley Burn Centre, Critical Care and Infectious Diseases programs at Sunnybrook.

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