Handwashing – Why, When, How Often, and Can You Do it too Often?

All of the major health organizations and experts around the world have weighed in on handwashing over the years as the primary method to keep us safe from contracting and passing around the flu, colds, digestive tract infections and most recently the coronavirus. We’ve also received some instruction on effective hand cleaning: wash for the length of singing the ABCs, rinse well, and dry with a clean towel.  But when do we need to wash our hands? How often should we be washing our hands? On the flip side, is it possible to wash your hands too often? Let’s explore the why, when, how often, and frequency to keep ourselves safely sanitary without causing skin and hand-related issues.

Why do we need to wash our hands?

We need to clean our hands to prevent the spread of infection, illness and disease. This is relevant when dealing with seasonal issues like the flu where infections are easily spread via droplets from coughing, sneezing, and wiping a runny nose. Those droplets remain on surfaces, then easily transfer to your face after you’ve touched a contaminated surface. Washing your hands is the first line of defense and the easiest thing you can do to protect your health.

When should we wash our hands?

Simply put, we should wash our hands more often than most people think. The basic rule of thumb is to wash your hands after activities (and before some) which could expose you to new germs. Here is a list of some common activities and when we should be washing our hands:

  • Before and after food preparation
  • Before eating
  • Before and after tending to someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or other wound
  • After using the bathroom or restroom
  • After changing diapers
  • After helping a child in the bathroom
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, or touching pet food or waste
  • After touching garbage

If you cannot wash, it is recommended to use hand sanitizer. Lipid membrane viruses like coronaviruses are killed by alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Be sure it is at least 62% alcohol. Also, make sure to use enough so that it covers all the surfaces on your hands. Rub it on until your hands feel dry. This takes about 20 seconds.

Recommendations have likewise been made to avoid touching contaminated surfaces, using a clean paper towel to open bathroom doors, and disinfect surfaces that you use every day like the touchscreen on your phone and your computer’s keyboard.

How often should we be washing our hands during the day?

Washing your hands at least 6 to 10 times a day has been linked to a lower risk of contracting infectious diseases spread by touch and contact transfer from the hands. A study published by Wellcome Open Research assessed the handwashing behavior of 1,600+ participants and found they were much less likely to be infected if they washed between 6 to 10 times in a 24-hour period.

If you figure that the average person eats 3 meals a day, and uses the bathroom 6 to 8 times daily, simple effective handwashing should already be a part of your normal routine.

When is it too much?

Handwashing is an essential part of being hygienic, but overcleaning or over-sanitizing may potentially lower the body’s resistance to essential bacteria. Experts have proven that not preparing your body by exposing it to different contaminants can, in the long run, weaken your immune system. There is a balance between washing your hands after touching questionable surfaces and cleaning endlessly within your own home.

Everyday handwashing doesn’t kill the good bacteria that live on your skin, but when you get to a point that your hands are dry and the skin is cracking, you’ve gone too far. Not only have you opened yourself up to the possibility of an infection getting into those vulnerable cracks, but you have also stripped away the healthy bacteria your body needs.

Signs you are overwashing or overusing a hand sanitizer include itchy, flaky skin, as well as pain and redness, irritation, and inflamed areas on the skin. If you aren’t experiencing any of these symptoms, you are probably not overcleaning.

The bottom line is: wash your hands after using the restroom, before and after meals or food preparation, and whenever else you might think it is prudent. But if you bend down to pick a pen up off the ground, or give your dog a pat on the head, you don’t necessarily have to pull out the Purell or rush to the nearest sink to wash up.