Hand Washing 101

Preparing to Wash Your Hands

You might not have given it much thought, but there are several factors to consider before washing your hands. Perhaps the most important one is to know when you should wash your hands. Mainly, you should wash them after you've come into contact with a large number of bacteria or viruses. For example, you should clean your hands after using the toilet, changing a diaper or handling waste because there are particularly nasty microbes -- including E. coli -- that exist in fecal matter.

You should also wash your hands whenever you're dealing with food, whether that means eating or preparing. In fact, you should wash your hands before and after preparing food, especially when handling raw meat or poultry. Take extra caution whenever dealing directly anything that could contain bacteria, viruses or anything else that could make you or someone else sick. Instances that require hand washing include:

  • After blowing your nose
  • After coughing or sneezing
  • Before and after treating a wound or cut
  • After you come in contact with a sick or injured person [source: Mayo Clinic]

Another important consideration when washing your hands is what type of soap you should use. Normal soap works by having two types of molecular components: hydrophilic (or water-attracting) molecules and hydrophobic (water-repelling) molecules. Once a lather is created, the hydrophobic molecules attach to the dirt and some bacteria on the skin, and they are rinsed away with water. Antibacterial soaps work similarly, except that they kill many types of bacteria instead of just washing them away. However, some scientists have found that antibacterial soaps show no extra benefits to normal soap. In fact, antibacterial soaps might kill only the weaker bacteria on the skin, leaving more powerful strains to breed, which can make bacteria more difficult to eliminate in the future [source: Mayo Clinic]. In any case, you should be using soap every time you wash your hands because it still helps more than water alone.

Now that you know when and with what to wash your hands, read on to learn why soap works better in some water temperatures than others.