Handwashing - why it's important | Better Health Channel
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Handwashing - why it's important

Summary

Washing hands properly after using the toilet, changing nappies, handling animals and before and after handling food helps prevent the spread of various forms of gastroenteritis, some of which can cause serious health problems. Use soap and warm running water and wash hands for at least 10 seconds. Liquid soap is best.

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A number of infectious diseases can be spread from one person to another by contaminated hands, particularly gastrointestinal infections, influenza and hepatitis A. Washing your hands properly can help prevent the spread of the organisms that cause these diseases.

Some forms of gastroenteritis can cause serious complications, especially for young children, the elderly, or those with a weakened immune system. Drying your hands properly is as important as washing them.

When to wash your hands


You should wash your hands thoroughly:
  • before preparing food
  • before eating
  • between handling raw and cooked or ready-to-eat food
  • after going to the toilet or changing nappies
  • after smoking
  • after using a tissue or handkerchief
  • after handling rubbish or working in the garden
  • after handling animals
  • after attending to sick children or other family members.

How to wash your hands properly


To wash hands properly:
  • Wet your hands with warm water.
  • Apply one dose of liquid soap and lather (wash) well for 15–20 seconds (or longer if the dirt is ingrained).
  • Rub hands together rapidly across all surfaces of your hands and wrists to help remove dirt and germs.
  • Don’t forget the backs of your hands, your wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails.
  • If possible, remove rings and watches before you wash your hands, or ensure you move the rings to wash under them, as microorganisms can exist under them.
  • Rinse well under running water and make sure all traces of soap are removed, as residues may cause irritation.
  • Pat your hands dry using paper towels (or single-use cloth towels). Make sure your hands are thoroughly dry.
  • Dry under any rings you wear, as they can be a source of future contamination if they remain moist.
  • Hot air driers can be used but, again, you should ensure your hands are thoroughly dry.
  • At home, give each family member their own towel and wash the towels often.
How to wash and dry hands with liquid soap and water
How to wash and dry hands with liquid soap and water (Click to open larger image)


Use warm water


Cold water is better than no water at all for a one-off hand wash, but should not be used for routine handwashing. Soap lathers (soaps up) better with warm water. The active ingredients on the surface of the soap are released more easily, making them more effective in cleaning your hands of dirt, grease and oils, without stripping away the natural oils in your skin. Using cold or hot water can also damage the skin’s natural oils. Over time, this can cause dermatitis.

Soap is important


Soap contains ingredients that will help to:
  • Loosen dirt on your hands.
  • Soften water, making it easier to lather the soap over your hands.
  • Rinse your hands, leaving no residues to irritate and dry your skin.
Soaps can have different pH – they may be neutral, slightly alkaline or slightly acidic. That’s why some soaps irritate some people and not others. Perfumes in soap can be another reason why some people have skin reactions.

Liquid soap is best


Generally, it is better to use liquid soap than bar soap, particularly at work. The benefits of liquid soap include:
  • Hygiene – it is less likely to be contaminated.
  • Right amount – liquid soap dispensers do not dispense more than required (more is not better).
  • Less waste – it’s easier to use, with less wastage. Drop-in cassette dispensers use all the soap.
  • Saves time – liquid soap dispensers are easy and efficient to use.
Disposable liquid soap cassettes are convenient, as you do not have to wash and thoroughly dry the refillable container before refilling. If you want to use refillable containers, they must not be topped up. When they are empty, they must be thoroughly cleaned and dried before they are refilled to avoid contamination.

At home, refillable dispensers are more likely to be used rather than drop-in cassettes, which are designed for commercial use.

The problems with bar soap – particularly in public places


There are many reasons why bar soap can be a problem, particularly if it’s used by a lot of people. These problems include:
  • Bar soap can sit in pools of water and become contaminated with many harmful germs.
  • People are less likely to use bar soap if it is messy from sitting in water.
  • Contaminated soap may spread germs and may be more harmful than not washing your hands.
  • Bar soap can dry out – people are less likely to use it to wash their hands because it is difficult to lather.
  • Dried-out bar soap will develop cracks, which can harbour dirt and germs. Again, you may be adding more harmful germs to your hands than you were trying to remove.
It’s fine to use bar soap at home, but it might help to keep it on a soap rack (so it’s not sitting in a pool of water) and change it if it becomes old and cracked.

Take care of your hands


Handwashing is only one part of hand hygiene. Looking after your skin generally is important, as your skin is the perfect barrier against infection. After your hands have been dried thoroughly, you can help to look after your hands if you:
  • Apply a water-based absorbent hand cream three to four times a day, or more frequently if your hands are constantly in water.
  • Use gloves to wash dishes to protect your hands.
  • Use gloves when gardening to prevent a build-up of ingrained soil or scratches.
  • Consult a doctor if a skin irritation develops or continues.

Where to get help

  • Your doctor
  • Your local council’s health department

Things to remember

  • Proper handwashing can protect you and others from a range of diseases.
  • Liquid soap is better than bar soap, especially at work.
  • Wash and dry your hands carefully.

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Fact sheet currently being reviewed.
Last reviewed: July 2012

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Washing hands properly after using the toilet, changing nappies, handling animals and before and after handling food helps prevent the spread of various forms of gastroenteritis, some of which can cause serious health problems. Use soap and warm running water and wash hands for at least 10 seconds. Liquid soap is best.



Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your qualified health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residence and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a qualified health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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