Written by Grove Collaborative

Handwashing and hand sanitizer 101.

Last Updated: September 24, 2020

Everything you need to know to keep you and your family safe and germ-free.

“Wash your hands” is advice we’ve heard since we were kids, but research shows that not all of us heed it — or know how to do it in the most effective way.

In times like cold and flu season and especially during a pandemic like COVID-19, properly washing and sanitizing your hands is even more important.

And we understand that doing the things the right way can be confusing, especially when cutting through all of the noise from the news, friends and family, and social media. A 2013 study found only 5% of the studied population washed hands long enough to kill germs, and a 2018 study found that people failed to properly clean their hands before meals 97% of the time. Feeling germy yet?

To make it easier, we’ve compiled the top advice from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), our Grove Collaborative fellows, and doctors who specialize in hygiene and autoimmune function. Consider this your handy cheat sheet for the dirty on keeping your hands clean, preventing the spread of germs, and avoid getting sick.

For the latest COVID-19 news, updates, and recommendations, visit the CDC’s dedicated coronavirus resource.

How to (properly) wash your hands

Step 1

Wet your hands with clean, running water. It can be hot or cold, so no need to crank the heat.

Step 2

Turn off the tap and apply soap. Lather your hands together while applying soap, making sure to get the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Scrub for at least 20 seconds.

Step 3

Rinse your hands under clean, running water.

Step 4

Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry. The WHO also recommends using a paper towel to turn off the faucet.

Our top handwashing tips

Five things you might not know about proper handwashing technique

1: The 20-second recommendation for handwashing begins when you start with the soap and ends when you finish scrubbing — not when water first hits your hands or after you wash it off.

2: Wet your hands before applying soap, not vice versa.

3: The CDC recommends turning off the faucet while you scrub.

4: The FDA says antibacterial soap offers no additional protection versus traditional hand soap, and may be doing more harm to the environment than good for your hands.

5: Hand towels may harbor germs; consider air drying or paper towels. Hate the waste and environmental impact of paper towels? Check out our tree-free paper products.

Handwashing Q&A

Your most pressing questions, answered.

When do I need to wash my hands?

Often, but the CDC recommends:

  • after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • after using the restroom
  • before eating or preparing food
  • after contact with animals and pets
  • before and after providing routine care for another person who needs assistance (e.g. a child)

How long should I wash my hands?

The CDC says to wash hands for at least 20 seconds — that’s the soaping part only, so no cheating and counting from the second you turn on the faucet.

Twenty seconds is two “Happy Birthdays,” one rendition of the “ABCs”, or the chorus from Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” or Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” but if you’re looking for other tunes to keep your handwashing interesting, check out this Twitter thread on 20-second choruses.

What are the areas most people commonly miss?

The back of the hands, lower palms, around the fingernails, and nail beds. The WHO illustrates the best way to make sure you’re covering all areas of your hands.

Should I use liquid, gel, or foaming hand soap?

Whatever helps your family wash properly and often! If you have control over the soap, some studies suggest you should opt for a liquid or gel over foaming. This is largely due to the amount of time people in a study spent washing their hands, not due to the efficacy of foaming soap against viruses.

“Because foam washes off more quickly than gel soap, users are more likely to ‘splash and dash’ after a dollop of foam,” Elizabeth Scott, PhD. and co-director of the Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons University in Boston, tells WebMD, referring to when people use water alone. "People tend to wash their hands for a shorter duration with the foam soap," says Ozlem Equils, MD, president of an educational nonprofit called MiOra, in the same article.

Do I need to use antibacterial soap?

No. The FDA says that you can—and should—skip antibacterial soap in favor of the plain kind (plus water!). For coronaviruses in particular, plain soap is effective at disrupting those viruses’ protective layer and making the virus unable to infect you.

In fact, you might be doing more harm than good by using antibacterial soap: The FDA ruled that 19 ingredients common in antibacterial soaps could no longer be marketed to consumers because they’re no more effective than non-antibacterial soap and may contribute to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Hand towels vs. paper towels vs. air dryers?

The CDC says the best way to dry hands remains unclear because few studies about hand drying exist, and the results of these studies conflict. Paper towels may have the advantage of physically removing additional germs, but you could be at greater risk for touching contaminated surfaces when getting the towel. Studies suggest that using a clean towel or air drying is the best approach to proper hand hygiene.

Hand sanitizer basics

60% alcohol

The minimum % of alcohol the CDC recommends for hand sanitizers. Studies have found that sanitizers with an alcohol concentration between 60–95% are more effective at killing germs than those with lower concentrations or non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

20 seconds

The CDC-recommended amount of time to apply hand sanitizer. Cover all surfaces of both hands, and rub until hands are dry.

Common handwashing & hand sanitizer myths, debunked

Breaking down common misconceptions around hand soap and hand sanitizer

Myth: Hand sanitizer is more effective than hand soap because it has alcohol.

Science says: The CDC recommends handwashing as the best choice, followed by hand sanitizer if handwashing isn’t accessible. Hand sanitizers do not get rid of all types of germs and might not be as effective as handwashing when hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

“I prefer hand soap: Hand sanitizer is typically an alcohol-based gel, and alcohol demethodates your skin,” says Dr. Chernoff. “In other words, if you ‘wash’ your hands with that, your hands afterwards feel very dry. Soap is gentler.”

Myth: If there’s no soap, I’m not doing anything when I wash my hands.

Science says: If soap isn’t available, any water is preferable to not washing, since the simple act of washing can remove germs physically. A 2011 study found that washing with water alone reduced bacteria (although not as much as washing with soap and water).

Dr. Chernoff agrees. “Plain soap, if used properly, disrupts the lipid membrane of the virus,” he says. “Even if you don’t have some, even if you wash your hands with just water, you reduce the risk.”

Myth: If I don’t have hand sanitizer, can’t I just use a cleaning wipe or baby wipe?

Science says: Baby wipes may make your hands look clean, but they’re not designed to remove germs from your hands. The CDC recommends washing hands with soap and water when possible. As for cleaning wipes? They may be better than nothing, but regular soap and water or hand sanitizer are still your best bet.

“The key to avoiding infection is washing your hands with plain old soap,” says. Dr. Chernoff. “People use alcohol wipes and bleach wipes, and those are more appropriate if you want to clean surfaces like the steering wheel of your car. You can use antibacterial wipes, Clorox, any of those things that are alcohol based will do it, but they’re more drying.”

Myth: I can use drinking alcohol (vodka, etc.) to make my own hand sanitizer.

Science says: Most spirits do not contain enough ethyl alcohol to kill coronaviruses and other infectious diseases. An 80-proof spirit actually contains 40% ethyl alcohol, compared with the 60% shown to kill viruses similar to COVID-19. Vodka maker Tito’s has even urged customers to not attempt to DIY with its products.

Myth: The hotter the water when washing my hands, the better.

Science says: Consider cold! The CDC recommends warm OR cold water but also notes that the temperature doesn't affect germ removal — but warm water may have the added disadvantage of both causing skin irration and being more environmentally costly.

For the latest COVID-19 news, updates, and recommendations, visit the CDC’s dedicated COVID-19 resource.

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