CDC: Frequent, Proper Handwashing Matters Now More Than Ever

Illustration of hand washing with white and purple bubbles on a light pink background.


Olga Strelnikova / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • People generally are washing their hands more due to the pandemic.
  • Many of us aren't doing so at pivotal times that could prevent infection.
  • Make sure to wash your hands after using a public bathroom or before preparing food at home. Those are two scenarios where handwashing didn't go up significantly, according to a survey.

October 15 is Global Handwashing Day—the perfect time to be reminded about how and when to correctly wash your hands.

You might think you're an expert on washing your hands because you're doing it so much these days. However, while many of us are washing our hands more since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a recent survey has found that one in four Americans are still not washing their hands at the right times (or in the right way) to effectively prevent illness.

“Proper hand hygiene has never been more important than now, in order to keep ourselves and others safe,” Natalie Bubier, NP, a board-certified family nurse practitioner in Maine, tells Verywell. “Washing hands frequently is equally important. Wash your hands and wash them often."

How to Properly Wash Your Hands
Verywell / Tim Liedtke

Handwashing: What the Data Says

In October, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report on the recent survey in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The survey asked over 4,000 people about their handwashing habits.

According to the CDC, more people are washing their hands frequently, but about a quarter of Americans aren’t doing it at an opportune time to thwart illness—such as after coughing, sneezing, or blowing their nose.

The CDC's survey asked Americans about washing their hands in six situations: 

  • After using the bathroom at home
  • After using the bathroom in public
  • After coughing, sneezing, or blowing one’s nose
  • Before eating at home
  • Before eating at a restaurant
  • Before preparing food at home

The survey in June 2020 found that compared to the results from the October 2019 survey, more people are likely to lather up after having respiratory symptoms and before eating at home or in a restaurant. While there was some improvement, about a quarter of respondents are not remembering to wash their hands in these situations in 2020.

Compared to 2019, people in 2020 are 2.3 times more likely to remember to wash their hands after having respiratory symptoms, 2 times more likely to wash up before eating at a restaurant, and 1.7 times more likely to wash their hands prior to eating at home.

There was not a significant increase in people washing their hands after using a public bathroom or before preparing food at home. 

Men in the 18- to 24-year-old bracket were less likely to remember to wash their hands in multiple situations that the survey asked about.

The authors acknowledge that the data has limitations. For example, it can’t say whether handwashing behavior was a direct result of the pandemic or if there were other causes.

When to Wash Your Hands

According to the CDC, there are several opportune times to wash your hands to avoid the spread of illness. These times include:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC also recommends washing your hands after you have been in a public place and touched a surface that others may frequently touch (shopping carts, gas pumps, door handles, etc.) People should also wash their hands prior to touching their eyes, nose, or mouth.

Natalie Bubier, NP

Proper hand hygiene has never been more important than now, in order to keep ourselves and others safe.

— Natalie Bubier, NP

How to Wash Your Hands

Need a refresher on how to properly wash your hands? The CDC has laid out the steps of a proper handwashing technique.

  1. Wet your hands with clean warm or cold water.
  2. Apply soap.
  3. Lather up being sure to get suds on the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  4. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  5. Rinse your hands well.
  6. Dry your hands.

Can You Use Hand Sanitizer?

The CDC advises that you use hand sanitizer if you cannot wash your hands with soap and water. While the CDC reiterates that handwashing is the best way to get rid of germs in most situations, if it's not possible, the next best option is an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

“Scientific studies show that you need to scrub for 20 seconds to remove harmful germs and chemicals from your hands. If you wash for a shorter time, you will not remove as many germs,” a CDC spokesperson tells Verywell. “Make sure to scrub all areas of your hands, including your palms, backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your fingernails.”

The Global Handwashing Partnership also has guidance on handwashing online, but would not give a comment directly to Verywell.

Handwashing for All

“An important thing to understand with handwashing is that it’s important to do it thoroughly and properly,” Bubier says. People of all ages need to make sure that they are washing their entire hands. Bubier urges parents to teach their kids about handwashing and ensure that they are washing their entire hands, including their thumbs and under their fingernails. This is especially important because young children are more likely to suck their thumbs or bite their nails as a way to self-soothe.

“A lot of times, people actually don’t wash their hands long enough and don’t spend enough time washing the backs of hands, thumbs, and under fingernails," Bubier says. "The recommendation to wash for at least 20 seconds is key, in addition to covering your entire hand.”

What This Means For You

Everyone of all ages needs to know how to properly wash their hands, and they should do so frequently throughout the day. Washing your hands at especially opportune times to prevent illness—such as before you eat and after you use the restroom—is more important now than ever before to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In a pinch, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, but experts agree that the most effective way to get germs off your hands is to wash them at a sink with soap and water.

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Article Sources
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  1. Haston JC, Miller GF, Berendes D, et al. Characteristics associated with adults remembering to wash hands in multiple situations before and during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, October 2019 and June 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69:1443–1449. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6940a2

  2. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When and how to wash your hands. Updated September 1, 2020.