How to wash your hands effectively and why it matters

Dr Luke Powles
Associate Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK
15 March 2023
Next review due March 2026

Washing our hands regularly and properly is one of the most important things we can do to prevent the spread of germs, including 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.

a person washing hands

Why is it so important to wash your hands properly?

Hand washing seems like the simplest thing, but not everyone knows how to do it properly.

Even if they look clean, your hands may still carry many germs if you aren’t washing them thoroughly and for at least 20 seconds. That's why cleaning your hands regularly and effectively with soap and water is so important.

The first thing washing does is to physically remove things from your hands by making the skin slippery. With enough rubbing (friction), you can rinse any germs on your hands away.

Soap is 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 and carers 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?

It’s important to wash your hands when you get into work and after travelling on public transport. You also should wash your hands when you arrive home. Other instances when you should wash your hands include:

  • before you prepare and eat food
  • 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 not available. But keep in mind that hand gel may not be as effective if used when your hands are visibly dirty.

How long should you wash your hands for?

The ideal length for washing your hands is at least 20 seconds. It might help to put a 20 second timer on. Or you might like to sing a song while you wash your hands, for example singing “Happy Birthday” twice.

What’s an effective hand washing technique?

Step 1: Wet your hands under warm running water. Turn the tap off when done to save water.

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

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. Make sure all soap has been washed away from your hands.

Step 5: Dry your hands thoroughly using a hand dryer or disposable paper towel. Try to avoid touching the dryer.

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

Step 7: 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.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Dr Luke Powles
Dr Luke Powles
Associate Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK

    • How to Wash Your Hands. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., last reviewed August 2021
    • The Power of Hand-Washing to Prevent Coronavirus. Medscape., published March 2020
    • Safer travel guidance. Transport for London., last reviewed June 2022
    • Living safely with respiratory infections, including COVID-19. UK Health Security Agency., last updated June 2022
    • Cleaning. Food Standards Agency., last updated May 2020
    • Preventing and controlling infections. UK Health Security Agency., last updated February 2023
    • When & How to Wash Your Hands. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., last reviewed November 2022

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