Handwashing and Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Last Updated December 2020 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Beth Oller, MD

Handwashing remains one of the best ways to prevent the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). It’s common sense and it works. However, it must be done properly and with soap and water. When soap and water are not available, the next best option is to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Your sanitizer should contain at least 60% alcohol. If not, it won’t kill germs effectively.

Path to improved health

Proper handwashing not only reduces the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19), it can prevent the spread of other viral illnesses such as cold and flu.

Handwashing requires five simple steps:

  • Wet: Put both your hands under clean, running water.
  • Lather: Apply a generous amount of soap to the inside and back of your hands as well as your fingertips. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds (sing happy birthday) and don’t forget to wash under jewelry and fingernails. Your fingertips are especially important as people often put their fingers on their face, nose, and eyes. This is how the virus spreads.
  • Scrub: Rub both hands together and move your fingertips around both hands. You don’t need a scrub brush. You don’t need to make harsh, scrubbing movements.
  • Rinse: Return both hands to the running water and gently wash away the soap.
  • Dry: Completely dry the water from your hands. Using a disposable towel (paper towel) is best to avoid leaving germs on towels. Air dryers, commonly found in public bathrooms, are also effective.

When do I need to wash my hands?

Handwashing throughout the day is important, but even more important during an outbreak. Always remember to wash your hands in these situations:

  • After returning from a public outing (grocery store, work, school, concert, sporting activity, hospital, nursing home, etc.).
  • Before leaving the bathroom – both at home and in public bathrooms.
  • After shaking hands during flu season and virus outbreaks.
  • Before, during, and after preparing food, especially raw food.
  • Before eating food.
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound.
  • 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.
  • After putting on your shoes.
  • After using public computers, touching public tables and countertops, cash and coins, other people’s phones, etc.

How long should I wash my hands?

Science has shown that washing your hands for 20 seconds is effective in killing germs. Don’t have the patience for this? Experts say that washing your hands while singing Happy Birthday twice makes the experience quick and pleasant.

When should I use hand sanitizer?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol) is helpful in protecting against the spread of germs and viruses. However, handwashing with soap and water is still best. Hand sanitizer is effective when soap and water are not available. This includes when taking public transportation and it’s difficult to get to a bathroom (airplane, train, bus). Carrying a travel size bottle of hand sanitizer makes it easy to disinfect your hands in these situations. Some people use it when they sit down to eat at a restaurant. Others use it when they are in the presence of crowds (games, church service, school meetings).

Apply a generous drop of hand sanitizer to the palm of your hand and rub it across both hands, front and back, and fingertips.

Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?

A vaccine for COVID-19 has been authorized for emergency use in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the vaccine, and the CDC has recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and older.

In clinical trials, the vaccine proved to be about 95% effective in preventing people from getting seriously ill from COVID-19. Pfizer-BioNTech tested its vaccine on about 44,000 people and reported the vaccine effective in preventing COVID-19 illness consistently “across age, gender, race, and ethnicity demographics.”

Eventually, a vaccine will be available for everyone. For now, the supply is limited. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), through its independent advisory committee, has recommended the order in which people should receive the vaccination. Among the first: health care workers and residents of long-term-care facilities. It will be up to individual states to decide the order in which they will administer the vaccine. They likely will follow the CDC recommendations. Find out more about the vaccine.

Things to consider

Using clean, running water is important. Never wash your hands by submerging them in a basin or bowl of standing water. This water could contain germs that continue to live there. Sometimes, clean running water is affected by natural disasters (tornados, hurricanes, etc.). There is still some benefit to washing your hands with soap in these situations as long as it is with running water.

Avoid touching doorknobs, toilet flush handles, and faucets after washing your hands. Try using a paper towel, the sleeve of your clothing, a scarf, or gloves to protect your hands and fingers against germs.

Do not leave hand sanitizer unattended around small children. Drinking it is poisonous.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What can I do if handwashing causes my hands to be chapped?
  • Which surfaces does the virus live on?
  • Isn’t handwashing ineffective if you have to immediately touch something public?
  • Do soap and water create a barrier of protection or just wash away germs?
  • Will frequent handwashing cause me to develop an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

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Centers for Disease Control: Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives