You visit the doctor, you eat a balanced meal, and you exercise. Those are the basics of living a healthy life, but there’s one simple thing that could increase your health and dramatically reduce your chances of getting sick that most people think of as an option: washing your hands.
It’s something your parents have told you on multiple occasions, but even people who are aware don’t wash their hands. An estimated one-third of Americans skip the sink after going to the bathroom.
So why should you wash your hands?
The Surface of Skin
Skin is generally an excellent barrier to microorganisms, and although that means bacteria have a bit more trouble reaching your insides, it also means a lot of bacteria get stuck to the outside of your skin. Your skin harbors a huge number of bacteria of the noninfectious and infectious varieties. The bacterial flora of your skin includes transient and resident microorganisms.
Resident flora is generally a permanent part of the skin and can be isolated if necessary. They aren’t easily removed and include some bacteria that actually save your life, prevent oxidative stress, and fight off invading viruses.
Transient flora, also known as contaminating flora, isn’t consistently present on the skin of your hand or on all people. However, they easily transfer from your hands to food, other people, doorknobs, or whatever else you touch. One of the most common transient flora: E. coli. Fortunately, these “bad” bacteria are easily removed with soap, water, and a little friction.
How You Get Sick
Imagine all the surfaces you touch—doorknobs, handrails, ATMs, keyboards, dollar bills—then imagine how many other people have touched those things or how often those surfaces get cleaned. Through cell migration, bacteria can easily find their way into your body. Cuts make a convenient entry point for germs, but even without cuts, consider how often you touch your face. Think about brushing your teeth, eating a burger, or touching your eye before you wash your hands. It’s actually pretty easy for something on your hands to get into your body.
How to Wash Your Hands
That’s where washing your hands comes into the picture, but even those who do reportedly wash their hands aren’t doing a proper job of it. The basic rundown:
- Wet your hands under clean running water, cold or warm.
- Apply soap. There are hundreds of different soaps on the market, but anything will do. Soaps are fairly ubiquitous life science products. The key is in the scrubbing.
- Work up a lather. Rub the soap into your hands and wrists, between the fingers, and under your fingernails for about 15 seconds, which is about the same as singing “Happy Birthday” to yourself twice fast.
- Rinse and dry with a clean towel, paper towel, or air dryer.
Hand sanitizers work in a pinch but are generally not as effective as a good ole hand scrubbin’, especially if your hands are visibly dirty.