The Best Way To Wash Your Hands, According To Science

Photographed by Tracy Wang.
You probably thought you knew how to wash your hands. It's simple, right? Just soap and water? But new research suggests that the most effective way to wash your hands is much more complicated than that.

For the study, published earlier this month in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, researchers tested out two hand-washing techniques in a U.K. hospital. Of the 120 participants (including 78 nurses and 42 doctors), half were told to use the three-step system for cleaning their hands (with alcohol-based hand sanitizer rather than soap and water) that is currently recommended by the CDC.

The other half were instructed to use the World Health Organization's six-step program, which involves some very specific directions:

(1) Start by rubbing your hands palm to palm.
(2) Then, rub your right hand over your left through your fingers. Then, do the same with the opposite hands.
(3) Next, rub your hands palm to palm with fingers interlaced.
(4) Then, rub with fingers interlocking and the backs of your fingers touching the other hand's palm.
(5) Then rub one hand around the thumb of the other, then the other hand around the other thumb.
(6) Finally, rub the fingers of one hand in the palm of the other and then reverse.

Diagrams help

The researchers found that, after interacting with a patient, participants who had used the six-step method had less residual bacteria on their hands (reduced from 3.28 to 2.58 colony-forming units per mL) than those used the three-step technique (reduced from 3.08 to 2.88 colony-forming units per mL). However, participants in the six-step group also spent significantly longer washing their hands — 43 seconds compared to 35 seconds for the three-step group. So their hands were cleaner, but they paid slightly in terms of efficiency.

It's important to remember, though, that even if your bathroom is pretty gross (or you're hiding some MRSA in there), you're probably not dealing with hospital-level scary bacteria. So while we should all probably be using the six-step technique to keep as safe as possible (especially if we're handling food or in the bathroom), we also realize that's probably not going to happen every time. So wash your hands as well as you can with soap and warm water, but don't freak out if you're not hitting every single one of those six steps.

And when you're ready to dry your hands, we've got that covered, too.
Image: Courtesy of WHO.

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