Brush up on hand washing and beat the bugs

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As the cure for colds, flus and other seasonal viruses and bacteria continues to elude us, it’s best to avoid getting sick in the first place, and good old handwashing is the cheapest and most effective form of infection control we have. Yet many of us don’t wash our hands when we should and when we do, we don’t do it properly. Here’s some tips to assist you to upgrade your hand washing skills:

1. Don’t rush

A quick splash under the tap isn’t enough. To get germ-free hands you’ll need to do thorough wash under clean running water, lasting 40 to 60 seconds (including the drying), with lots of rubbing together of the hands. Sing the entire “Happy Birthday” song twice will give you the suggested length of time.

2. Soap up

If you’re at a tap and there’s some soap nearby, use it. Any germs on your hands will be attached to the layer of acidic fats, oils and cellular debris on the surface of the skin. Soap dissolves this layer and so does a better job of dislodging the bugs than merely rubbing your hands under water alone.

3. Liquid versus bar soap

While liquid soap is less likely to be contaminated than a cake of soap, this is more of an issue in public places than at home. If you prefer to use bar soap at home, store it on a rack or soap dish rather than sitting it in a pool of water that might breed bugs of its own. You should replace bar soap when it starts to look old and cracked though as it will be difficult to lather.

5. Running water is best

It’s best to use running water if you can, as clean hands are likely to become contaminated again if you wash them in a sink or bowl of water. If there’s no running water then make do with what is available.

6. The issue of water temperature

Very hot water may kill disease-causing microbes, but the temperature needed (80 degrees°C) would leave you with significant burns. Soap lathers (soaps up) better in warm water, which is also less likely to strip away the natural oils in your skin than either hot or cold water. It’s also argued warm water makes handwashing more pleasant, so you’re more likely to keep up the habit.

7. Remember to rinse

Once the soap and the friction have lifted the dirt and germs from your hands, you want to rinse them down the sink. Again, you want to rinse under clean running water if possible.

8. When there’s no water

A bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitiser or gel in your bag can be useful if you need to clean your hands and you can’t access water, for example when you’re out and about and need clean hands to eat food. Choose products that contain at least 60 per cent alcohol, which kill germs by direct action of the alcohol. These products are still somewhat drying but less likely to cause dry skin and dermatitis than soap is. They also cut the time it takes to clean your hands, one reason for their widespread use in hospitals.

9. Drying matters

Drying is as important as washing, as any wet spots on your hands provide bugs with a place to breed. Also bacteria and viruses are more readily transferred to other surfaces when there’s moisture around. There is some debate about the best way to dry your hands. Commercial hand dryers work well, but research shows most people tend not to use dryers long enough to dry their hands properly.This has led some experts to suggest good old paper or cloth towels are really the best option, with cloth probably having the edge because it’s easier on your hands. At home, the advice is to give each family member their own towel and wash them all often.

10. Keep your hands away from your face

if you keep your hands away from your face the germs will find it harder to make their way inside your body. Once we’ve picked up the virus on our hands, it’s all too easy for it to be transferred to our mouth, nose or eyes, where it can more readily enter cells and make us sick. Germs on our hands can also be transferred to others via surfaces we touch or by gestures like a handshake.