healthHealth and Medicine

You've Been Washing Your Hands Wrong Your Whole Life


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

977 You've Been Washing Your Hands Wrong Your Whole Life
Doing it correctly will take an extra four hours a year, though. hxdbzxy/Shutterstock

It seems that every single week, someone somewhere tells you you’ve been doing something wrong your entire life. Whether that’s eating cupcakes, peeling oranges, breathing, or even pooping, trust the media: you’ve been doing it wrong.

The latest addition to this cacophony of correctable behaviors is washing your hands. That’s right – just lathering your hands with soap, rubbing them around a bit for 20 seconds, then rinsing them, fails to remove much of the bacterial gunge from your digits, according to research conducted by Glasgow Caledonian University.


After observing 42 doctors and 78 nurses wash their hands, and measuring the bacterial load left behind after each wash, they concluded that the so-called “six step” method used by medical professionals is, somewhat unsurprisingly, the best way to remove pathogen-filled detritus from your fingers. This method has been formalized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as follows:

1 - Wet hands and apply soap or hand sanitizer. Rub palms together until soap is bubbly.

2 - Rub each palm over the back of the other hand.

3 - Then rub between your fingers on each hand.


4 - Rub the backs of your fingers against the opposite palm while interlocking your fingers.

5 - Clasp your left thumb in your right palm and rub in a rotational motion, then switch hands and carry out the same step.

6 - Carry out rotational rubbing backwards and forwards while clasping the fingers of your right hand in the palm of your left and vice versa.

There are more than six images here, to be fair, but there are six main steps. WHO


The new study, published in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, concludes that the standard three-step hand washing method – lather, scrub, rinse – which is even promoted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is ineffective.

So maybe, in this case, you have been washing your hands wrong all your life. Using the six-step method does take 25 percent longer to complete, though, meaning you will spend an extra 7.5 seconds per wash removing bacteria. If you washed your hands eight times per day that works out to an extra six hours each year washing your hands.

If you haven’t got six hours spare, then at least keep washing your hands as before. You’d never believe what lurks under those fingernails.


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