How to Wash Your Hands

Washing your hands is one of the best ways to avoid sickness and prevent the transmission of germs, including the coronavirus (COVID-19) virus. Washing hands thoroughly with soap and clean water can be a crucial defense against diseases that spread easily from person-to-person, and keep you, your loved ones, and the community healthy as a result. However, handwashing is only effective when done correctly and consistently.

How to Properly Wash Your Hands
Verywell / Tim Liedtke

When Should You Wash Your Hands?

Hands should be washed often. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the following are key times when handwashing is especially important to help prevent the spread of germs and viruses:

  • Before, during, and after food preparation
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after coming into contact with a sick person who has vomiting or has diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the bathroom
  • After changing a diaper
  • After cleaning a child who has used the bathroom
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After coming in contact with an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After touching pet food or pet treats
  • After handling garbage

If you don't have immediate access to soap and water in these circumstances, you should use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

How to Properly Wash Your Hands

  1. Turn on the Water: Clean, running water is more important than temperature. Turn on the water and get your hands wet. You can turn the water off or leave it running, depending on your preference. Turning it off saves water, but it will increase the number of times you touch the faucet, which will expose you to germs that are on the faucet handles.
  2. Lather Up: Soap is important. It helps lift the germs and microbes off your skin while you wash your hands and makes the whole process more effective. Studies have shown that it's no better to use antibacterial soap than regular soap, and the overuse of triclosan, a commonly used ingredient in antibacterial soap, could actually contribute to antibiotic resistance.
  3. Scrub for at Least 20 Seconds: Most people don't scrub their hands nearly long enough. Twenty seconds doesn't sound like a long time but it is much longer than you would imagine. How do you make sure you are washing the proper amount of time? Sing the Happy Birthday song to yourself (or out loud) twice. Make sure you are completely covering your hands with soap and water. Scrub between your fingers, under your nails, all over your thumbs and up your wrists. There are germs all over your hands, not just on your palms and fingertips.
  4. Rinse the Soap (and Germs) Away: Rinsing is ultimately how you get the germs off of your hands, so it's really the most important step. Again, it's important to use clean running water. Dipping your hands in a stagnant pool of water (or even standing water in the sink) is not the same as rinsing the soap off with clean, running water. If all you have is a pool of water—for instance, you are outside and have no access to running water—it is better than nothing and certainly preferable to not washing your hands at all. Many people don't realize that washing your hands doesn't typically kill germs, it is simply the most effective way to get them off of your hands so you don't spread them to yourself or others. Rinsing allows you to wash the germs and microbes away, drastically cutting down the chances that you will spread disease.
  5. Dry Your Hands: Using a paper or cloth hand towel, dry your hands completely. If you are using cloth hand towels, they should be washed frequently—especially if they are in a shared household where they could become contaminated easily.
  6. Turn Off the Water: If you want to save water, go ahead and turn the water off after you get your hands wet and then on and off again when you need to rinse them. According to the CDC, "While some recommendations include using a paper towel to turn off the faucet after hands have been rinsed, this practice leads to increased use of water and paper towels, and there are no studies to show that it improves health." Use your best judgment here. You also might want to consider using your paper towel to open the bathroom door as you're leaving if you're using a public restroom.

When to Use Hand Sanitizer

To get rid of germs, thoroughly washing your hands is best. However, if soap and clean water aren't immediately available, using a hand sanitizer is an acceptable backup until you can wash your hands. In order to be appropriately effective, the hand sanitizer must be alcohol-based and contain at least 60% alcohol.

Note that hand sanitizer is not a substitute for soap and water for removing germs. It is also not as effective when your hands are visibly soiled or have been exposed to chemicals.

When using hand sanitizer, remember to use a lot—enough to completely cover both hands. Then, rub your hands together while still wet, interlacing the fingers frequently, until they're completely dry.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.