Once considered controversial, handwashing reached new heights during COVID-19
When it comes to staying healthy, one piece of advice often trumps the rest: Wash your hands. The need to practice good handwashing has been especially pertinent during the pandemic, with COVID-19 wreaking havoc in hospitals across the globe.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends people wash their hands with soap and water for a period of 20 seconds in order to eliminate germs.
“Regular handwashing is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick, and prevent the spread of germs to others,” the CDC says on its website. “Clean hands can help stop germs from spreading from one person to another and in our communities — including your home, workplace, schools, and childcare facilities.”
While considered standard practice nowadays, washing your hands wasn’t always considered the right way to prevent from getting sick.
A doctor in the 1840s almost lost his job after recommending people wash their hands.
And while surgeons would begin regularly washing their hands by the 1870s, it took more than 100 years for handwashing to become a universal practice, with the first national hand hygiene guidelines only incorporated into American health care in the 1980s.
During the pandemic, meanwhile, handwashing soared, with Americans increasingly anxious about getting infected with COVID-19 or spreading the deadly virus.
Handwashing hit its peak in the spring of 2020, with Americans washing their hands more than 10 times every single day, on average, according to the Healthy Handwashing Survey from Bradley Corporation.
Now, however, people have begun to revert back to older, dirtier habits, with the average daily handwashing dropping to under 8 times per day in January, according to the survey.
Americans with children are remaining vigilant about their handwashing, according to the survey, which found 79% of parents have taken some action to ensure their little ones wash up.
Techniques being done by parents include buying fun soaps to incentivize handwashing, asking their children to wash their hands, and adding it to their child’s daily routine.
Michael P. McCann, Ph.D., a medical microbiologist and professor and chair of biology at St. Joseph’s University, told CleanLink handwashing is the best way to keep from getting sick and reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“Handwashing has been shown to be a simple, safe, and effective way to reduce the transmission of viruses and bacteria, including the virus that causes COVID-19,” McCann told CleanLink. “It is essential that everyone maintain high levels of personal hygiene and that we do not let down our guard.”
During the pandemic, people increasingly were drawn to using hand sanitizer as a replacement for soap and water, which is not as accessible for around the clock handwashing.
The sale of sanitizer boomed during the pandemic, with a number of companies from various industries pitching in to make the soap and water alternative.
Hand sanitizer, while still better than nothing, is not as effective at removing germs as washing hands with soap and water, however, according to the CDC, which acknowledges that — so long as it contains at least 60% alcohol — it is a good second option.
That advice was echoed by Dr. Virginia Bieluch, the chief of infectious diseases at The Hospital of Central Connecticut, who told Health News Hub hand sanitizer works when soap and water aren’t present.
“If at all possible, wash your hands with soap and water,” Bieluch told Health News Hub. “If you can’t do that, then hand sanitizer is an acceptable alternative.”
This is all to say, keeping hands clean was on the forefront of most Americans minds during the pandemic, and, whether with soap and water or hand sanitizer, the need for good hand hygiene became paramount.
Getting Over It
That anxiety and need for clean hands has since gone down, according to the Bradley Corporation, with the pandemic now in its third year and a need for constant vigilance perhaps being replaced with a less urgent resignation.
In January 2021, more than half of the population said they were very concerned with being infected with COVID. Now, that number is only at 41% of respondents, with the CDC estimating 43% of Americans have contracted COVID-19 at some point.
Another indicator that Americans are beginning to become more relaxed with hand hygiene is the way we are greeting each other.
During the pandemic, greeting others with a handshake become a legitimate faux pas. As of January, however, only 36% of survey respondents said they are still avoiding shaking hands.
Jon Dommisse, vice president of marketing and corporate communication for Bradley Corp., told CleanLink that people should continue to be vigilant about their hand hygiene.
“Germ avoidance and handwashing diligence are two habits that should always be a priority,” Dommisse told CleanLink. “No matter the time of year or situation we’re in, lathering up, scrubbing thoroughly, rinsing and drying your hands is something that should be done consistently without fail.”
Wash Your Hands
The CDC recommends washing your hands often, as a way to avoid spreading both respiratory and diarrheal infections.
Key times to wash hands include when handling, preparing, or eating food, after using the restroom, after treating an open wound or cut, after changing a child’s diaper, after blowing your nose or coughing or sneezing, or after touching or handling an animal or its food.
When washing your hands, the CDC says you can use either cold or warm water while applying soap and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds.
An easy way to ensure you wash for the correct amount of time is to sing songs such as “Happy Birthday,” which takes 20 seconds to sing twice.
The CDC recommends ending the process by rinsing your hands with clean water and drying them with either a towel or in the air.