Mom Was Right: Wash Your Hands

I’ve been experimenting with something lately: Washing my hands more often and washing them better. First and foremost, to see if I have fewer flare-ups. But with others in mind, too: Not spreading germs that could make other people sick, especially with stomach bugs.

Is it helping? Well, it’s not exactly a scientific experiment, just my observations, but yes, I believe it’s working. I’ve noticed fewer grumbly tummy days and loose bowel movements since making a concerted effort at the sink.

For one thing, I’m avoiding making myself sick. Yes, it’s disgusting to think about, but we can all make ourselves ill if there’s any inadvertent “fecal-oral transmission”… (gross).

More importantly, though, I’m protecting myself from the vast unwashed – and they (we) are literally vast. Study after study show that while most people claim to wash their hands after using the toilet, they either don’t, or they don't do it poorly.

How bad is it?

One study found that only 5% of people wash their hands long enough to kill germs after using the toilet, and only two out of three use soap! And sorry to seem sexist, guys, but it’s science: Women are (somewhat) cleaner than men. Among men, only half used soap and 15% didn’t wash their hands at all, compared with 78% women who used soap and 7% not washing their hands.1

That means lots of us are doing it wrong, male or female, or not doing it at all. Look, I’ll be the first person to say that I’ve been lazy or rushed at times. But I’ve become more aware that the consequences affect more than just me.

I’ve written before about the possibility that my IBS-M was worsened by a bout of C. difficile. The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders says that about 10% of people who have a bout of bacterial gastroenteritis go on to develop post-infectious IBS. That’s a LOT of people.

So, it’s too late for me, but if I can keep someone else from having this happen? I’ll do it.

There’s a good reason that everyone restaurant restroom has a sign reminding employees to wash their hands: The CDC says that dirty hands are estimated to contribute to 50% of all foodborne illness outbreaks. That means the food was safe; it was contaminated by people. All it takes is one restaurant worker to skip washing their hands after a potty break, right before making your salad, to spread noroviruses or bacteria that cause gastroenteritis.

Washing more often = common sense

Now, I’m not turning into an irrational germaphobe. Life is inherently germy! “More often” simply means washing after activities that seem like common sense to me. The CDC recommends washing one’s hands with warm water and soap:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • 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

I also wash my hands now after touching door knobs/handles, and using shared office equipment such as copy machines (suggestions from my employer).

Washing better = washing longer

The CDC say that proper hand washing involves five steps: Wet, Lather, Scrub, Rinse, Dry. The part that we all skimp on (assuming we’re using soap) is the scrubbing. We’re supposed to be scrubbing our hands for 20 seconds – about equivalent to humming “Happy Birthday” twice. It’s not my favorite thing to do, and it feels like a long time, especially when other people are doing the quick rinse and door dash.

Things that help me take the time:

  • Turning off the tap: I found that I often rushed because I didn’t want to waste water. Now I use an elbow to turn it off while I lather and scrub.
  • Alternatives to Happy Birthday: Learn to count to 20 in different languages; or, count to 10 and then back down to 1. So far, I can do it in Swedish, French, Spanish, German, Finnish and Farsi! Now I look forward to my little practice sessions. (Almost.)
  • Pretending I’m on Grey’s Anatomy or House or M*A*S*H and about to perform an important operation. I don’t want to get snarked at by Dr. House!

Do you have any other ideas for hand washing better and more often? Share them!

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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