by Greg Campbell | October 13, 2015 12:34 pm
I constantly interrupt hang-outs with friends when we go out to eat in order to go wash my hands before eating. Some tend to mock my efforts. Perhaps after reading this, my desire to eat with clean hands won’t appear so crazy…
Are your hands clean? Sure, you washed them after you went to the loo, but as the experiment here reveals, you probably didn’t clean them anywhere near as well as you thought.
And proper hand washing is important – our hands can harbour a nasty colony of illness-inducing bugs including E.coli, salmonella, clostridium difficile, campylobacter, the superbug MRSA (which is resistant to certain antibiotics), as well as cold and flu viruses and norovirus, the winter vomiting bug.
But what constitutes proper hand washing, and are you doing enough to protect yourself?
To find out I used a special UV camera to test different hand-washing techniques – from the typical ‘rinse and shake’ to the 30 seconds recommended by a leading authority on disease control.
First, I rub on a gel known as Glo Germ, which simulates how bacteria cling to your skin. The gel, which is clear but ‘glows’ under UV light, is used as a visual aid in hygiene training – it’s been used for training nurses who are going to be working with ebola patients, for example.
The gel contains particles the same size as bacteria, so any that’s left behind (ie, that shows up white in the UV light) gives you an immediate idea of how good your hand-washing technique is. In other words, the whiter the hands in these pictures, the dirtier they are – and the darker they are, the cleaner.
The results may make you think twice next time you’re at the bathroom sink…
We’ve all done it: there’s no soap or towel, or we’re in a rush, so we make do with the merest of rinses under a running tap and a quick shake to get our hands dry. Indeed, up to a quarter of us only briefly wet our hands, according to a 2013 study by Michigan State University. Researchers observed 3,500 people after they’d used a public loo and found men were much more likely to just rinse than women.
However, as the picture shows, rinse and shake doesn’t achieve much. After running my hands under the tap for three seconds, my hands show up a glowing white under the camera – suggesting lots of bacteria will have been left there.
Only a little of the bacteria has been removed from the sides of my fingers. You can see the white rings around my cuticles, where colonies of bacteria may have settled. ‘A quick rinse is never enough,’ says Dr Lisa Ackerley, a leading hygiene expert and visiting professor at the University of Salford. ‘Everyone needs to wash their hands properly, especially after going to the bathroom.’
Faecal bacteria on hands is really common, explains Dr Val Curtis, an expert in hygiene and public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. ‘We did a study of commuters around England and found that 28 per cent had it on their hands.’
Research suggests just 37 per cent of men and 61 per cent of women wash their hands after using the bathroom.
And people are less likely to wash their hands in a dirty bathroom, says Dr Curtis. ‘This makes sense because you get the feeling you might be more likely to get contaminated with something – but that may be exactly when you really need to wash.’
SIX-SECOND WASH – WITHOUT SOAP
Six seconds is the average length of time people spend washing their hands, according to research. But this is not long enough to effectively remove bacteria.
The NHS recommends we wash for at least 15 seconds – roughly the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice over at a fairly jaunty pace.
Washing my hands for slightly longer has reduced the white areas – the amount of ‘bacteria’ – on my hands compared with rinse and shake (especially on my palms, not shown), but there is still a high concentration on the backs, around my wedding ring, under my fingernails and in my cuticles.
The NHS advice stresses the need to rub your hands palm to palm and then to interlace the fingers as you scrub, followed by rubbing around your thumbs in order to ensure all areas are clean. But, like me, most people tend to put most effort into their palms, says Dr Ackerley, missing areas such as between the fingers and around the nails, cuticles and thumbs.
Overall, however, my hands have fewer bacteria – no doubt because this time I dried my hands with a towel.
‘Drying your hands is really important,’ says Dr Ackerley. ‘If you’ve missed anything while washing, the rubbing action will help remove any bacteria.’
And germs transfer more easily to and from wet hands – so you want to avoid leaving the loo with damp hands.
‘Norovirus can survive well on hard surfaces, such as door handles, so you run the risk of picking up people’s germs. Never dry hands on the kitchen tea towel. Any bacteria you take off your hands could then be transferred to when you wash up. I prefer to use kitchen roll.’
SIX-SECOND WASH – WITH SOAP
The most important part of hand washing is using soap, according to Dr Curtis. ‘As long as you use soap, it’s quite hard to wash your hands badly. It’s sticky, so you have to wash it off – taking the bacteria with it,’ she says.
‘Soap doesn’t kill bacteria, it gets rid of them,’ she says. ‘This is because one end of the soap molecule attaches to water while the other end attaches to dirt (which is where the bacteria will be).
‘So, as you rinse your soap-covered hands, the water strips off the soap, taking the dirt with it.’
For this reason, she says, there’s little advantage in using soap with added antibacterial properties to kill bacteria. ‘You may get rid of a few more germs, but the majority would be removed by normal soap. Putting antibacterial components into soap doesn’t make that much difference in terms of public health.’
Lathering with soap also enhances the rubbing action as you wash, which may explain why in the picture, despite washing for a brief six seconds, my hands show up cleaner – there are less of the glowing white bacteria, though there’s still plenty around my cuticles and jewellery, under the tips of my nails and around my wrists.
Nails and cuticles are easily missed areas, says Dr Ackerley. ‘And this is a particular problem for people who often nibble on their cuticles or chew on their nails, as they could be risking infection.
‘When you wash your hands, you should scrub the tips of your fingers against your palms to clean under the nails.’
FIFTEEN SECONDS WITH SOAP
This is how long you should wash for, according to the NHS. Despite considering myself to be a fairly clean person (my husband might say obsessively so), I’m not sure I normally wash for this long – I have to time myself with a stopwatch.
In the Michigan State University study, they found just 5 per cent washed their hands for 15 seconds or more. It would seem that by washing for this long you wash bits you might not normally bother with, such as the wrists.
As you can see from the picture, there are far fewer white areas than with the typical six-second wash.
The only white areas are the crescents around my cuticles, a patch on the side of my thumb and a streak on the top of my little finger. ‘You should wash for 15 seconds because you need that time to clean all the little bits of your hands,’ says Dr Ackerley.
THIRTY SECONDS WITH SOAP
But should you wash for even longer? The Centres For Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S., a leading authority on public hygiene, suggests 15 to 30 seconds is enough to remove harmful bacteria.
So, I tried the full 30 seconds, and I cannot stress enough how unnaturally long this felt (it’s enough for four jaunty renditions of Happy Birthday).
There is a visible difference – there are even fewer white areas. The crescents of bacteria around my cuticles in the 15-second picture have all but gone – though I’m amazed to see there is still a trace.
I’m not sure the difference with the 15-second picture justifies having to wash your hands for such a long time.
Dr Curtis agrees: ‘With a very careful technique or washing for much longer you get rid of the remaining few bacteria, but it’s getting rid of the majority that matters.’
Yikes! It makes you want to take a long, hot shower, doesn’t it?
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