How to wash your hands effectively and why it matters

Luke James
Group Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Director of Healthcare Transformation
17 September 2020
Next review due September 2023

It’s a message worth repeating – hand washing is one of the most important things we can do to protect ourselves and others from coronavirus, and prevent the spread of viruses.

Here, I explain the importance of hand washing for 20 seconds or more with hot water and soap. I also share some simple hand washing techniques to try.

Scroll down to also watch videos from our doctors. These range from demonstrating how to wash your hands effectively, to answering common hand washing questions.

Why is it so important to wash your hands properly?

Hand washing seems like the simplest thing, but few people know how to do it properly.

Even if they look clean, your hands can still carry many germs. That's why cleaning hands regularly and effectively is so important.

The first thing it does is to physically remove things from your hands by making skin slippery, so that with enough rubbing we can rinse any germs away.

At the same time soap is very effective for coronaviruses. These viruses are covered in a layer of fat. Soap can break that fat apart and make the virus unable to infect you.

Parents of children returning to school might also find it helpful to watch Bupa’s short animation about germs with their child. The animation is designed for children of primary school age, to help them understand the importance of hygiene in a fun way.

When should you wash your hands?

If you work and travel is an essential part of your job it’s important to wash your hands when you get into work and after travelling on public transport. You also need to wash your hands when you arrive home, and before eating or handling raw foods like meat and vegetables. This is in addition to standard hygiene practices such as:

  • after changing a nappy or using the toilet
  • after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • before and after treating a cut or wound
  • after handling or touching animals, including pets

You can use an alcohol-based hand gel (sanitiser) with a minimum of 60 per cent alcohol content if soap and water are unavailable. But as stocks are currently running short, soap and water are just as effective.

What’s an effective hand washing technique?

The ideal length for washing your hands is at least 20 seconds. It might help to put a 20 second timer on and get ready to roll up your sleeves.

The best way to wash your hands

Step 1: Wet your hands under warm running water.

Step 2: Apply a small amount of liquid soap to your hands.

Step 3: Rub your hands together vigorously. Make sure you apply soap and water to all surfaces of your hands for at least 20 seconds, and up to one minute. Make sure you rub your palms, the backs of your hands, between your fingers, your fingertips, thumbs, wrists and nails.

Step 4: Then rinse your hands under running water.

Step 5: Dry your hands thoroughly using a hand dryer or disposable paper towel.

Step 6: Turn the tap off using a disposable paper towel or your elbow. This is to avoid re-contaminating your hands with any lingering germs.

Once your hands are clean and feeling dry you can use a moisturising cream. Stick to using your own moisturising cream on clean hands, and avoid sharing it with others.

The following video illustrates how to wash your hands effectively in 20 seconds.

Common hand washing questions

If you have more questions related to hand washing and proper hand hygiene, you might find it helpful to watch our common hand washing questions video. Here Dr Rebecca Rohrer and Dr Matthew Brown, answer questions ranging from whether to wear jewellery during hand washing to the importance of cleaning under nails.

Luke James
Dr Luke James
Group Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Director of Healthcare Transformation

    • Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance. GOV.UK., updated 18 March 2020.
    • Clean hands protect against infection. World Health Organisation,, accessed March 2020.
    • The power of hand washing to prevent coronavirus. Medscape,, accessed 6 March 2020.

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