Everything you need to know about washing your hands to protect against coronavirus (COVID-19)
Washing your hands can protect you and your loved ones.
Respiratory viruses like coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread when mucus or droplets containing the virus get into your body through your eyes, nose or throat. Often, the virus can easily spread from one person to the next via hands.
During a global pandemic, one of the cheapest, easiest, and most important ways to prevent the spread of a virus is to wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to wash your hands the right way:
1. How do I wash my hands properly?
To eliminate all traces of the virus on your hands, a quick scrub and a rinse won’t cut it. Below is a step-by-step process for effective handwashing.
- Step 1: Wet hands with running water
- Step 2: Apply enough soap to cover wet hands
- Step 3: Scrub all surfaces of the hands – including back of hands, between fingers and under nails – for at least 20 seconds.
- Step 4: Rinse thoroughly with running water
- Step 5: Dry hands with a clean cloth or single-use towel
2. How long should I wash my hands for?
You should wash your hands for at least 20-30 seconds. An easy way to time it is by singing the full happy birthday song, twice.
The same goes for hand sanitizer: use a sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol and rub it into your hands for at least 20 seconds to ensure full coverage.
3. When should I wash my hands?
In the context of COVID-19 prevention, you should make sure to wash your hands at the following times:
- After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
- After visiting a public space, including public transportation, markets and places of worship
- After touching surfaces outside of the home, including money
- Before, during and after caring for a sick person
- Before and after eating
In general, you should always wash your hands at the following times:
- After using the toilet
- Before and after eating
- After handling garbage
- After touching animals and pets
- After changing babies’ diapers or helping children use the toilet
- When your hands are visibly dirty
4. How can I help my child wash his or her hands?
Here are some ways you can help children wash their hands by making handwashing easier and fun for them:
5. Do I need to use warm water to wash my hands?
No, you can use any temperature of water to wash your hands. Cold water and warm water are equally effective at killing germs and viruses – as long as you use soap!
6. Do I need to dry my hands with a towel?
Germs spread more easily from wet skin than from dry skin, so drying your hands completely is an important step. Paper towels or clean cloths are the most effective way to remove germs without spreading them to other surfaces.
7. Which is better: washing your hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer?
In general, both handwashing with soap and water and hand sanitizer, when practiced/used correctly, are highly effective at killing most germs and pathogens.
Soap kills the coronavirus by destroying the outer shell that protects it.
If your hands look dirty, you should wash them with soap and water. Hand sanitizer is less effective on visibly dirty hands. Hand sanitizer is often more convenient when you are outside of the home, but can be expensive or difficult to find in emergency contexts. Also, alcohol-based hand sanitizer kills the coronavirus, but it does not kill all kinds of bacteria and viruses, for example, the norovirus and rotavirus which cause diarrhea. It can also be toxic if swallowed and it should be stored out of reach of children and used only under adult supervision.
8. What if I don’t have soap?
In the absence of soap and running water, using hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 per cent alcohol is the best second option. Using soapy water or ash may help remove bacteria, though not as effectively. If these methods are used, it is important to wash your hands as soon as possible when you do have access to handwashing facilities, and avoid contact with people and surfaces in the meantime.
9. How else can I help stop the spread of the coronavirus?
- Practice physical distancing: stay at least one metre (three feet) apart from others, air rooms frequently or leave the windows open, avoiding shaking hands, hugging or kissing people, sharing food, utensils, cups and towels
- Wear a mask whenever you are unable to maintain physical distance, especially indoors
- Stay home if you feel unwell and avoid close contact with anyone who has cold or flu-like symptoms; seek medical care early if you or your child has a fever, cough or difficulty breathing
- Use proper sneezing and coughing etiquette: cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when coughing or sneezing; dispose of used tissues immediately and wash your hands
- Avoid touching your face (mouth, nose, eyes)
- Clean surfaces that might have come in touch with the virus, and generally clean surfaces more frequently (especially in public spaces)
- Stay up to date with the latest information from your local health authorities or through the WHO website
For all of UNICEF’s guidance on COVID-19, click here.
This article was originally published on 13 March, 2020. It was last reviewed on 5 October, 2021.