Why you should recommit to hand-washing to help prevent COVID

With cases on the rise once again, revisiting hand washing and other practices is a necessity.
A person washing their hands with soap and water spreads soap between their fingers over the basin of a sink.
With COVID-19 cases spiking, thorough and frequent hand washing should not be overlooked. Sean Horsburgh/Unsplash

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With the more transmissible Delta variant circulating widely and coronavirus cases rising rapidly across the country, resisting pandemic fatigue is paramount. Renewing our commitments to common-sense public health strategies like hand-washing, in addition to getting vaccinated, will be necessary to stem this latest wave. 

Masking indoors, even for vaccinated individuals, is again recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But masks alone won’t get the job done. Social distancing is also important, as is washing your hands thoroughly and often, and avoiding touching your face with unclean hands. The Delta variant is a formidable foe, but it is still no match for good old soap and water.

[Related: The COVID-19 Delta variant is more contagious than we feared—even among the vaccinated]

When you wash your hands, the soap lifts the dirt, oil, and other particles—like viruses—off the surface of the hand, says Ajay Sethi, an associate professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Rubbing your hands together as you wash also pulls unwanted particles free from the skin. 

“As you apply and move soap around your wet hands, it lathers as soap molecules are destroying and deactivating the SARS-CoV-2 virus and other germs,” Sethi says. Water then carries these particles off your hands and down the drain, leaving your mitts clean and virus-free.

This only happens, however, when you wash your hands properly. Studies in recent years, before the pandemic, suggest that most people don’t wash their hands for long enough to actually get rid of germs. Let’s review some hand washing best practices.

The CDC recommends wetting your hands with water at a comfortable temperature; it doesn’t have to be scorching hot to get the job done. Then, lather your hands with any kind of hand soap—antimicrobial ingredients aren’t necessary. Take the time to spread the suds all over the back of your hands, between your fingers, and under your fingernails. Scrub until you hit the 20 to 30 second mark—or sing “Happy Birthday” twice—and then rinse with water. Finally, dry your hands with a clean towel. 

[Related: Want to stay healthy? Learn to wash your hands the right way.]

Hand washing can help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 because it removes any virus particles we may have picked up while touching things out in the world. “When an unmasked person infected with the virus breathes, talks, sings, shouts, sneezes, or coughs, exhaled breath filled with visible and invisible respiratory droplets spew in the surrounding airspace,” Sethi explains. “These droplets will eventually land on surfaces where the virus can remain intact for hours and days, long after someone has left the room.”

Clean hands are key because it means that when we inevitably touch our faces—which we do anywhere from 23 to 50 times an hour—we don’t transfer anything nasty into our eyes, nose, or mouth. 

Think of it this way: If you come in contact with an infected person, or a surface in a high-traffic public area, and end up with coronavirus particles on the skin of your hands, you won’t become infected. But if you then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands after the fact, the virus can make the jump from the barrier of your skin, where it’s harmless, to viable cells on the inner surfaces of those cavities, where it now has access to the rest of your body. Frequent and proper hand washing safeguards against this outcome.

If you’re on the go and can’t get to a sink, hand sanitizer is a good substitute. Sanitizer works by actually killing the bacteria and viruses that wind up on our hands. But unlike hand washing, which removes all of the gunk that accumulates on our skin, including infectious agents, sanitizer leaves the disinfected microbes and everything else behind. For this reason, soap and water are preferable unless you’re in a pinch.

[Related: Simple tips to heal your hands after constant washing]

Even though clean hands prevent us from planting unwanted particles into the vulnerable openings on our faces, it’s best to avoid touching our faces as much as possible to begin with—which is easier said than done. For most of us, face touching is an unconscious action and the habit can be hard to break

One strategy is making it more difficult to touch our faces, like wearing glasses to protect the eyes. Face masks are also effective here, in addition to their primary purpose of blocking the dispersion of respiratory particles. Since they cover the nose and mouth (when worn properly), those areas of the face become inaccessible to dirty hands when we unconsciously reach for them. 

While getting vaccinated remains the most important step one can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19, these strategies, in combination with masking and distancing, proved effective against the original coronavirus. The Delta variant is no different. 

“Hand washing alone will not reduce one’s risk for spreading the Delta variant, but it’s an important and necessary behavior,” Sethi says. “Combined with vaccines, masking, distancing, and avoiding unnecessary gatherings, we can significantly reduce the spread of the Delta variant in the community.”