It’s More Important Than Ever to Wash Your Hands Frequently—Here’s *Exactly* How Long It Takes to Scrub Germs Away

Photo: Getty Images/Jay Yuno
With fresh concerns about the global spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is stressing the importance of washing your hands often, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

But it's a question as old as time: How long do you actually need to wash your hands to get them clean? For some people (i.e., a lot), the answer is they simply don't do it. (Yuck!) For others, it's a quick splash with soap and water. For others still, it's as long as it takes to mentally go through the day's to-do list. But to kick germs to the curb, you just need to sing a little song.

A short scrub to wash up just doesn't to cut it. A 2013 study from Michigan State University found that only 5 percent of people wash their hands long enough to kill germs after using the restroom, and that's risky behavior. The CDC says proper hand washing is key to fending off illness and infections caused by salmonella, E. coli, norovirus, and respiratory diseases like COVID-19. It also helps to ensure you don't spread disease to others. "If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol," says the CDC. "Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty."

It takes just little bit longer (seconds, really!) to wash your hands properly.  If you've just used the bathroom or taken out the garbage, or if you're about to eat, the rule is the same: You need to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.  Don't forget to wash the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Using warm water isn't necessary, but most people wash for longer if the temperature is pleasant. To time it out, sing the Alphabet song, which lasts bout 20 seconds. (You could sing "Happy Birthday" twice instead.) After you're finished singing, rinse your hands and dry them off.

The bottom line: Please wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Please?

Originally published May 17, 2019; updated February 28, 2020.

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