October 28, 2020

Looking Back: Does Hand Washing Really Matter?

Natasha Weiss

As we all adjust to what it means to go about our lives during a global pandemic, one of our  biggest concerns is returning to work and school, and how to do so safely.

With so much uncertainty around the pandemic, we are all looking for ways to implement measures that protect our health, as well as the health of our children, partners, and families.

The information that we have around COVID is constantly evolving, but one thing is for certain: hand washing is a very important tool in stopping the spread of the highly infectious virus that causes it.

The History of Handwashing

The practice of hand washing revolutionized medicine and how people limit the spread of harmful pathogens. An Austrian obstetrician in the mid 1800s, Ignaz Semmelweis, found evidence of the importance of handwashing by observing maternal mortality rates in obstetric clinics he worked in. Despite declining rates after implementing rigid hand washing protocols, he had a difficult time convincing his colleagues of the importance of the practice.

Obviously his legacy left a mark, as handwashing and sanitation are critical components of modern medicine and healthcare. Knowledge of the importance of hand washing as a means of promoting public health began to spread in the 1980’s, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spearheaded a national hand hygiene guidelines campaign. Further guidelines and campaigns have been presented since, especially those by The World Health Organization, as a way of setting global standards for hand hygiene.

Wash Up: Stop The Spread

The strain of Coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, can linger on the hands of individuals carrying it. Hands are a vector for spreading harmful microorganisms that can lead to illness and infection. Hand washing with soap and water helps to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens from hands, while also inactivating it.

Disease and illness causing germs that live on hands can easily infect people when they touch their eyes, nose, and mouth with contaminated hands - oftentimes without even realizing it. These germs can also be spread to surfaces like desks, doorknobs, and sink handles, increasing the spread of pathogens. Although there is not yet specific data relating to the Coronavirus in particular, hand washing can help prevent the spread of other respiratory illnesses by 16-21%.

Much of the COVID protocols in place are based on prior influenza pandemics, where frequent hand washing was shown to be a vital protective measure against influenza, while lowering rates of hospitalization.

In order to combat the spread of COVID-19, experts recommend washing hands with soap and water for at least twenty seconds, or if that is not available, using alcohol based hand sanitizers.

With vaccines in progress, and no currently known cure for COVID-19, hand hygiene is one of the most crucial steps people can take to prevent the transmission of the virus, and control the disease. Everyone must do their part in stopping the spread through proper hand washing and sanitation.

Squeaky Clean

Not all handwashing is created equal. Knowing correct hand hygiene can make the difference between spreading SARS-CoV-2, and not spreading it.

The C.D.C. and The World Health Organization, WHO, outline the seven steps of effective handwashing.

  1. Get your hands wet with clean water. Opt for running water if available.
  2. Cover all the surfaces of your hands and wrists with soap.
  3. Thoroughly rub your hands together to lather soap and scrub the entirety of your hands, wrists, as well as under your fingernails.
  4. Keep scrubbing hands and wrists for at least twenty seconds.
  5. Rinse hands and wrists under clean water. If available, it's better to use running water.
  6. Dry hands using a clean towel, or if none is available - let them air dry.
  7. Turn off the faucet using a towel, to prevent recontamination.

Here are some other helpful tips on proper handwashing technique:

  • First rub your palms together in a circular motion to lather the soap.
  • Then clean the back of each hand with the opposite palm.
  • Interlace your fingers and rub them back and forth to clean in between them.
  • Clean your fingertips by rubbing them into your opposite palm.
  • Be sure to clean around each thumb and wrist with your opposite hand.

Any type of soap you have on hand will do. Some research suggests that antibacterial soaps are no more effective at killing harmful pathogens than regular soap.

The same goes for water temperature, despite popular belief, research suggests that the temperature of water does not make a difference in the effectiveness of handwashing. What’s more important, is the correct technique and making sure you have access to clean, running water.

Handwashing in The Workplace

A company’s workplace wellbeing depends on the health of its employees. This starts with promoting sanitation, especially amidst the presence of an extremely infectious disease like COVID.

Return to work plans should include detailed measures for employee health and protection, a very important step being COVID prevention through accessible hand washing . Portable hand washing stations can help with removing hand washing from congested communal areas, such as bathrooms and kitchens.  Accessibility is key, and it’s up to employers to offer frequent and comfortable solutions for hand hygiene.

Portable hand washing stations in the workplace, like the ones offered by Nessel Space, provide employees, communities, and building occupants peace of mind with accessible and efficient hand hygiene.

Handwashing for Schools

As people return to work, children, teens, and college students transition to virtual, in-person, or hybrid format classrooms.

Healthcare experts recommend frequent and accessible hand washing as a key COVID prevention method at school.

Strategically placed portable handwashing stations can make hand washing more accessible for teachers, students, and staff.

Portable hand washing stations can also help teachers to educate students on the importance of developing hand washing as a daily practice. .

Going back to the original question: Yes, hand washing absolutely matters. It is critical to preventing the transmission of illness, from typical coughs and colds, to the strain of Coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As people return to work and school, it is vital to offer frequent and comfortable access to hand washing.