Handwashing (Lesson 25)

Karen Overstreet, Roy, Heli J., Guarino, Annrose M.  |  3/5/2005 12:51:19 AM

Washing hands

Anti-bacterial soap

Washing hands

Helping to Prevent the Spread of Infection

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, handwashing is the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection. Poor handwashing contributes to millions of cases of food poisoning every year.

This true story is an example of the importance of proper handwashing:

Fifteen children in Atlanta became sick with foodborne illness during the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season. They had fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain. All the children had eaten chitterlings (pork intestines), a common part of holiday meals for some people. The disease-causing bacteria were transferred from the raw chitterlings to the children through contact with the hands of the people preparing the food.

Here is an example of the importance of handwashing after handling pets (this is also a true story): Fifteen premature babies in a hospital became sick with a fungus. The babies had gotten the fungus from hospital workers who had petted dogs. The workers had not washed their hands after they petted the dogs and before handling the babies.

What You Will Learn

  • The importance of handwashing
  • The High Five: Five steps to washing hands effectively
  • Five times to be especially sure to wash hands
  • Whether antibacterial soaps are a good choice.

When Should You Wash Your Hands?

1. After playing/working outside.

2. After you sneeze, cough or use a tissue or handkerchief.

3. Before you eat.

4. Before and after preparing food.

5. After bathroom trips or changing diapers.

6. After playing with pets.

7. Before or after you care for someone who is sick.

Methods of Removing Germs

Mechanical removal of germs
Handwashing with plain soaps or detergents (in bar, granule or liquid form) suspends millions of germs and allows them to be rinsed off. This process removes transient microorganisms. Transient microorganisms are the germs you pick up from the environment.

Chemical removal of germs
Handwashing with antimicrobial-containing products kills or inhibits the growth of microorganisms. This process removes both transient and some resident microorganisms. Resident microorganisms are a healthy part of normal skin.

Antibacterial Uh-Oh!

Many soaps, detergents and other cleaning products offer antibacterial versions of their products. While extra bacteria-fighting power may sound like a good idea, researchers are beginning to disagree. Using antibacterial products on your body and in your home helps bacteria to build up resistance to being killed. If the bacteria in your home become resistant and you get a bacterial infection, the infection will be harder to cure. Here are some antibacterial tips:

  • Use antibacterial products only if someone in your house has recently been ill or has had surgery and is especially vulnerable to infection.
  • Use regular soap and hot water to wash your hands and regular dishwashing soap for your kitchen.
  • Bleach or chlorine-based cleaners are effective for disinfecting floors, counters and other surfaces. These won't help bacteria become resistant.
  • Be sure to wash all fresh fruits and vegetables to get rid of any antibiotic that may have been sprayed on them while they were growing.
  • Don't take antibiotics for viral infections, such as the flu. They won't help the infection go away, and they can encourage bacterial resistance. If you do take an antibiotic prescribed by the doctor, finish the prescription, even if you feel better before the bottle is empty. Never take someone else's prescription!
  • Remember to WASH YOUR HANDS!! This is the best way to get rid of bacteria!


1. Test Your Handwashing Technique

Materials needed - Glo Germ oilTM or vegetable oil and cinnamon, UV light, bars of soap and stop watch.

Set out the necessary materials. If using oil and cinnamon, place a few drops of oil on your hands. Rub hands together to distribute the oil evenly. Sprinkle cinnamon lightly over the oiled hands. If you use the Glo Germ oil, rub some over both hands. Shine the UV light on your hands and notice the glowing germs. Wash your hands. Use the watch to see how long you wash your hands. Shine the UV light on your clean hands. How many germs are left?

2. The High Five

To be sure your hands don't carry disease-causing germs, follow the five basic steps to handwashing:

Step 1 - Wet hands with hot water. Add soap.

Step 2 - Use friction to work up lather; wash hands for at least 20 seconds.

Step 3 - Rinse well under a stream of water.

Step 4 - Dry hands thoroughly, with a single-use paper towel whenever possible.

Step 5 - Turn off faucet with paper towel, if possible.

Interesting Questions

1. What about hand lotion?

Answer: One study indicated that wearing hand lotion increased the bacterial count.

2. What about rings?

Answer: More bacteria were found while wearing rings than not wearing rings. After scrubbing hands thoroughly, the difference in bacterial count was not statistically significant. While wearing rings increased the number of microorganisms on the hands, a thorough handwashing reduced this number to a count similar to that obtained when rings were not worn.

3. Which method of drying hands results in the lowest number of viruses and bacteria getting on hands after you wash them: cloth, paper towels or air drying with an electric blower?

Answer: air drying with an electric blower produces the lowest and cloth drying the highest in numbers of both test organisms (viruses and bacteria).

4. How often during the day do you wash your hands?

Answer: One study indicated that their employees averaged washing hands just once during the day. Keep in mind the five times to be especially sure to wash hands.


Good handwashing habits are important when you handle or eat food. Handwashing removes dirt and harmful germs so that they don't contaminate the food. There are five times when it is especially important to wash your hands and five steps to good handwashing. You can remember this because there are five fingers on your hand - one for each step! Finally, remember that you don't have to buy antibacterial soap to kill germs. A thorough handwashing job using regular soap will kill the germs just as well!

Web Site Activities

1. Glo-GermTM Web site: www.glogerm.com

2. Fight BAC! www.fightbac.org


Rate This Article:

Have a question or comment about the information on this page?

Innovate . Educate . Improve Lives

The LSU AgCenter and the LSU College of Agriculture