Proper Hand Washing: How Long Should You Wash Your Hands?

By Chris Bodle, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
March 1, 2020

Washing your hands is important. There’s a reason that schools, workplaces, public restrooms, and commercial kitchens have hand washing posters and “wash your hands” signs prominently displayed: it’s a first-line defense against infecting yourself or others with harmful germs. Proper hand washing kills germs that can cause illness, preventing you from becoming sick or spreading disease to other people.

Wondering how long you should wash your hands, or if you should be using more than just soap and water? I’ll explain how to wash your hands and for how long, along with other tips that’ll help you and your family stay healthy, hygienic, and clean.

The Importance of Hand Washing

Every surface, object, person, and animal on Earth is covered with billions of germs. In fact, the average person comes into daily contact with more than 60,000 strains of microscopic bacteria. You are collecting bacteria and viruses on your hands as you move through your day. Many strains of bacteria and viruses are benign, meaning that they don’t cause harm to people with normal immune systems, but some, if left unchecked, can travel from a person’s hands to their face and to others, and cause illnesses like the cold, flu, or other dangerous diseases.

A proper hand washing procedure is simple, uses only clean water and soap, and requires only 20 seconds of vigorous scrubbing. Yet, it’s one of the most effective and important ways to kill germs that can make you ill—and keep your family healthy long-term.

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Hand Washing Procedure

In order to avoid contaminating yourself and others, you should wash your hands whenever they are visibly dirty. You should also wash your hands before you:

  • Prepare food
  • Eat a meal
  • Insert or remove contact lenses
  • Treat an open wound, cut, or sore
  • Care for a sick or immune-compromised person, including infants and young children

Similarly, always wash your hands after you:

  • Prepare food
  • Touch an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • Blow your nose
  • Cough or sneeze
  • Use the toilet or clean up someone else who has used the toilet
  • Change a diaper
  • Treat an open wound, cut, or sore
  • Care for a sick person
  • Handle garbage, pet food, or pet treats

The five steps to good hand hygiene


  • Wet your hands with clean water: Cool or lukewarm tap water is fine. Don’t worry about making the water too hot, since hot water can damage the skin.
  • Apply soap to both hands: Although soaps with antibacterial agents have become popular over the last few decades, ordinary soap removes germs just as effectively and causes fewer allergic reactions and other side effects.
  • Rub your hands together, washing hand over hand, working the soap into a lather: Rub every surface of your hands, including your palms and the backs of your hands, your wrists, between your fingers, and under your fingernails.
  • Scrub for a full 20 seconds: To ensure a proper hand washing, time yourself by singing or humming the “Happy Birthday” song twice to yourself, from beginning to end.
  • Rinse and dry: You can dry your hands with a clean towel or air-dry them.

While most alcohol-based hand sanitizing gel and wipes do not effectively clean visibly dirty hands, they can be used as an acceptable germ-killing addition, or alternative, to soap and water. Always use hand-sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol and apply to all surfaces of your hands, as directed by the label.

Hand Washing and Kids

Teach children how to wash their hands correctly to instill healthy habits in them, help protect them from common childhood illnesses, and keep them from spreading illness to others. Take every opportunity to encourage them to wash their hands with the following:

  • Reminders: Make sure they wash their hands before mealtime, before touching babies and younger children, and after handling animals or playing outside. Point out “wash hands” signs in public restrooms, too.
  • Model behavior: Wash your hands with your child to show them how to use soap and water correctly.
  • Correct timing: Sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice together to demonstrate how much hand washing time it takes to kill germs.
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How K Health Can Help

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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Chris Bodle, MD

Dr. Bodle is a board certified emergency medicine physician. He received his medical degree from Indiana University School of Medicine, and completed his residency in emergency medicine at Emory University. In addition to K Health, he currently works as an Emergency Medicine physician in an Urban, Level 1 Trauma Center in the south east.

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