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October 2017

5 Hand Hygiene Myths

Written by Nicole Horne
Cleanliness and Hygiene, Handwashing and Hand Hygiene

Basic hand hygiene. Sounds simple, right? As straightforward as handwashing sounds, many people tend to have misconceptions when it comes to hand washing and hand drying. From an early age we’re taught hand hygiene practices. It becomes embedded (hopefully) into our behaviour as a task we perform automatically. But have you ever thought about how you go about washing and drying your hands; and whether you are actually doing it the right way?

Research assistant professor at the Vanderbilt Institute of Energy and Environment, AR Carrico, told the National Geographic that handwashing is often "a case where people act in ways that they think are in their best interest, but they in fact have inaccurate beliefs or outdated perceptions."

Enter the most common hand washing and drying myths that people think are true:

1. You must wash your hands with warm water 

Carrico mentions that whilst it is true that heat kills bacteria, you’d have to wash your hands in extremely hot water (ie boiling water) to kill them; which would be much too hot to handle. You’d  wash your hands so quickly - if you managed to get that far before the heat scalded you - that the exercise would be  ineffective, as you need to wash your hands for at least 30 seconds in order to clean them properly.

Warmer water can also irritate the skin, making it less resistant to bacteria.

Todd Sack, a Physician with the Council for Healthy Floridians of the Florida Medical Association, told National Geographic that “you don't need hot water, you need soap, water, and friction.” There is also statistically very little evidence to support that there is a difference in the amount of bacteria eliminated using warm versus cold water. In fact, washing with cold water saves costs and leaves a smaller carbon footprint that using warmer water.

2. You only need water to wash your hands

According to globalhandwashing.org, washing hands with both soap and water is significantly more effective in cleaning your hands than only washing hands with water. 

Water only is however preferable to no handwashing at all.

Furthermore, handwashing with soap helps prevent gastrointestinal diseases like diarrhea, respiratory diseases and other harmful infections. Read more about the infections that can spread by not washing your hands.

3. Only washing with antibacterial soap kills germs

Scientists at the Korea University compared antibacterial soaps (containing triclosan - an agent against bacteria, funguses and viruses) against traditional hand hygiene soaps on 20 strains of bacteria. 

The scientists dropped small quantities of bacteria in vials containing varying concentrations of both of these types of soaps. Afterwards they coated 16 volunteers’ hands with bacteria and asked them to wash their hands with the two different soaps. After measuring bacteria levels they found that the antibacterial soaps performed no better than traditional soaps. In fact the only case where antibacterial soap proved effective was when it was left on hands for 9 hours!

Good old soap is good enough!

4. You don’t have to dry your hands after washing

Probably one of the biggest hand hygiene myths out there; thinking your hands are clean enough after you wash them. Well, this is true if your hands are dried properly after they have been washed.

It can sometimes be very tempting not to dry hands properly when you’re in a rush, but wet or damp hands attract bacteria, making it easier for germs to transfer from your hands and the surfaces with which you come into contact. Water also maintains the physiological state of bacteria that makes them able to survive in environments.

Lastly, by drying your hands, you remove any trace of remaining microbes that may be left after washing.

5. Using hand paper towels is the best way to dry hands

Last, but not least, this one is true; if you look at it from a time perspective. The amount of time that it takes to dry hands with a paper towel is about 10 seconds compared to an electric air hand drier, which can take as long as 45 seconds. This is often too long for many people to wait, resulting in hands not being dried properly.

The Dyson Air hand dryer,  which takes the same amount of time to dry hands as paper towels, led to significantly less bacterial transfer than other dryers.

A study by the university of Bradford found that rubbing hands together whilst using traditional air dryers could contribute to the spread of bacteria, and it was also found that the reduction in bacteria was the same - regardless of the type of hand dryer used - when hands are kept still. This is because bacteria that live beneath the skin are brought to surface and then transferred to other surfaces.

The above mentioned study concludes that the most hygienic hand drying method is using paper hand towels or making use of a hand dryer which doesn’t require rubbing the hands together.

Making a habit of proper hand hygiene, and educating others on its importance will ensure a healthier workplace by reducing cross contamination and thus improve productivity levels.

To ensure good practices, download the hand washing guide here. You can also subscribe to our blog for more insights.

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Nicole Horne

Nicole Horne

Nicole is a Digital Marketing Executive at Rentokil Initial Hygiene in Johannesburg. A self-proclaimed germaphobe, her love for hygienic environments and curiosity of all things “beneath the surface” fuels her enthusiasm for writing about the impact of germs in the workplace. She is passionate about creating awareness and sharing her knowledge on the impact of good hygiene practices. Follow Nicole on Twitter and LinkedIn for updates on the the good, the bad and the germy.

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