Don't Make These 5 Classic Hand-Washing Mistakes

Wash your hands clean of these bad habits!

December 19, 2013


Hand washing is so simple, but there's a lot of misinformation floating around about the right way to do it, a way that effectively kills germs and keeps you safe. From hyped-up—even toxic—soaps to temperature mistake gaffes, we use science-backed advice to help you clean up your hand-washing act!


Hand-Washing Mistake #1: You use warm water.
Washing your hands with warm water doesn't increase germ killing, and it actually raises your odds of skin irritation. Worse yet, it also exacerbates climate change! A recent Vanderbilt University study found that 69 percent of Americans think turning up the heat is more effective, a hand-washing mistake that creates unnecessary greenhouse-gas emissions. If Americans started using cold water instead of hot or warm during their collective 8 billion hand-washes a year, it could save roughly the amount of emissions that spew from two coal-fired power plants. In fact, our national obsession with washing our hands in hotter water creates the same amount of carbon emissions as the entire nation of Barbados creates in a year! For softer skin, a more stable planet, and equally effective germ killing, wash your hands in cold water.

Hand-Washing Mistake #2: You use antibacterial soap.
Using antibacterial soap is a rip-off, and could also pose dangers to your health. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration recently took a stand against the popular antibacterial chemical triclosan, saying manufacturers must prove it's safe and kills germs better than regular soap and water. Repeated tests, including those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have shown that hand washing with plain soap and water is just as effective as washing with antibacterial soaps. Triclosan and related antimicrobial chemicals in soap and body washes have been linked to thyroid problems, allergies, weight gain, and weakened muscle function. Just use regular soap and water. Better yet, look for soap that's formulated without questionable chemicals and fragrance (scents can be made with toxic ingredients). Find a safer brand by searching the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. We like Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap in tingly Hemp-Peppermint.

Hand-Washing Mistake #3: You're lacking the right lather.
Lackluster hand washing doesn't do the trick. You need to lather and scrub because this creates friction, the force necessary to lift dirt, grease, and microbes from your skin. Proper hand washing means lathering your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands and the spaces between your fingers. And don't forget under your nails—that's where high concentrations of microbes often hang out!

Hand-Washing Mistake #4: You scrub too quickly.
Parents often tell their kids to sing the "Birthday Song" twice while washing their hands to ensure optimal germ killing. But the truth is, many adults fall short when it comes to proper hand-washing time. The secret is to wash and lather for at least 20 seconds.

Hand-Washing Mistake #5: You rely on hand sanitizers instead of the sink.
It's true that certain alcohol-based hand sanitizers can do the trick in a pinch when there's no sink and running water around. But the truth is, these gels and wipes only kill certain types of germs. When you must use sanitizer, make sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol or more.