The importance of hand washing

Family Health Diary

It’s one of the basics we all need to teach our kids – how to wash your hands. That and brushing your teeth, how to use the toilet and saying please and thank you. I recall when my children were little I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time with daily life reminders along those lines with preschoolers, till they just became second nature.

May 5 was the World Health Organization’s focus day on hand hygiene. Their focus is “Save lives – Clean your hands”, aimed at those people primarily working to look after others, particularly in third world countries where lack of sanitation is a basic issue. It’s a reminder though to all of us, even in a first world country like NZ, that globally it’s one of the most basic things you can do to prevent illness. October 15th is Global Handwashing Day where children all over the world are encouraged to wash their hands properly. Of course it seems crazy we need annual global campaigns to remind us what we should know we need to do several times a day, but presuming people need reminding is probably good sense. I recall we when I was a student nurse learning that patient safety 101 meant that before and after every patient visit I must wash my hands. It was presumed we did not know so must be taught. Soon it became automatic but to start with it was a learnt activity till it became routine. (Same with small children – remind till it’s the norm). I also learnt that although accepted knowledge now, it was a medical discovery many centuries ago, that hand washing could decrease disease spread… an ‘aha’ moment. Hitherto nobody had joined the dots. It’s thought in fact that hand washing may well have saved many Jewish lives during the Black Plague in the Middle Ages as Jewish law insisted on hand washing many times throughout the day… at a time when most people did not.

But back to NZ in the present. If you’ve got small children in your life you’re bound to be asking them to wash their hands regularly. Little bladders mean lots of trips to the loo, messy play means dirty hands and little tummies means frequent refueling stops for food. I found a useful thing I picked up was to wash your hands for as long as it took to sing happy birthday. That’s actually quite a long time (20 secs) particularly for a toddler… but at least it’s fun. Longer than a quick flick under the water without soap and no drying! It’s the washing and the drying that are all part of the process. A note here – antibacterial soaps are not needed. Just good old fashioned soap does the trick.

The U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC) have a great five step hand washing plan that has the science linked to it. So the what AND the why. It also has the when in case you need reminding….happy hand washing!

What is the right way to wash your hands?

Follow the five steps below to wash your hands the right way every time.

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Why? Read the science behind the recommendations.


Written by Jude Dobson

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