Turns Out, We're All Terrible at Washing Our Hands

Jul 2, 2018 at 10:55 a.m. ET
Washing hands in a white sink against green background
Image: Malte Mueller/Getty Images.

When it comes to washing our hands, Americans need a bit of work. In fact, a new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 97 percent of the time, we're not washing our hands correctly during food preparation. Considering that 100 percent of us need to eat, this is a problem.

So, what are we doing wrong? We're rushing, the USDA says, which can lead to cross-contamination of food and other surfaces, potentially resulting in foodborne illness. Specifically, we're not spending the minimum of 20 seconds washing our hands, and many people aren't using a clean towel to dry their hands. Both of those are problematic and can contribute to the spread of bacteria. 

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“As a mother of three young children, I am very familiar with the mad dash families go through to put dinner on the table,” Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy under secretary for food safety at USDA, said in a statement. “You can’t see, smell or feel bacteria. By simply washing your hands properly, you can protect your family and prevent that bacteria from contaminating your food and key areas in your kitchen.”

Foodborne illness is a pretty big deal: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million Americans get sick with them each year, resulting in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. People with compromised immune systems as well as children and older adults are particularly at risk of getting sick from food that's not properly handled. 

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Tips for effective handwashing

So, how should you be washing your hands? Mayo Clinic provides these steps:

  • Wet your hands with running water — either warm or cold.
  • Apply liquid, bar or powder soap to a cupped hand.
  • Lather well.
  • Rub your hands, palm to palm, vigorously for at least 20 seconds. (Sure, go ahead and sing "Happy Birthday" in your head if it helps.) Remember to scrub all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails.
  • Rinse well.
  • Dry your hands with a clean towel.
  • Use the towel to turn off the faucet.

This is especially important when you're preparing food to ensure you don't get yourself or other people sick. Unlike so many things in life, washing your hands properly is something we can all do — it's well worth the extra 20 seconds. 

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