With flu shots available from doctors and local drugstores, illness prevention is on the minds of consumers and healthcare professionals alike—and not just limited to the flu. In corporate America, having any illness progress to the point of needing to take a sick day can have a detrimental effect—not only on worker productivity due to lost time, but also on those employees who literally can’t afford to be sick because they may not be eligible for sick time pay.

Sick time is not just a problem for adults. Each year, more than 164 million school days are lost due to illness according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many of these illnesses are caused by exposure to viruses and bacteria that are not only passed from person to person but also live on surfaces in our homes as well as at school and the office.  Surprisingly, the answer to help allay the problem is actually relatively simple and quite obvious: proper handwashing. Although many varieties of antibacterial hand sanitizers and wipes are available at stores, handwashing continues to remain one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread many types of infection and illness. But to be effective, it needs to be done properly. And the earlier that we teach kids the importance of washing their hands, the better the chance it will become a habit throughout their life.

Handwashing is designed to eliminate dirt as well as the germs that can make us sick, including bacteria and viruses. A recent germ study by NSF International, an organization committed to protecting public health, cited bathroom and kitchen faucets as some of the “germiest” places in the house as measured by the level of yeast, mold, Staph and coliform (a family of bacteria that includes Salmonella and E. coli) detected.  Some other germy household items included the kitchen sponge, toothbrush holder, pet bowl and kitchen sink. 

To help prevent the spread of germs when handling these items, handwashing is key.  Unfortunately while many children and adults think they know how to properly wash their hands, arguably most probably haven’t been taught the best method. In fact, during a demonstration at NSF International’s laboratories in Michigan, children were asked to apply a special glowing lotion to their hands before washing their hands. Once the children washed up, they placed their hands under a black light and “problem spots” glowed, showing them what areas were missed while washing. The culprits: under the nails, between the fingers, and wrists.

To make sure these locations are not missed when you or your kids wash your hands, follow these simple steps:  Wet your hands with warm water; lather your hands with soap; rub your hands together vigorously for 20 seconds, paying special attention to the nails, between the fingers, and wrists; rinse your hands with clean water; and dry your hands thoroughly with a hand dryer or paper towel.

Here are some ways to help make the process of handwashing fun for children and interesting for adults:

  • Create a handwashing chart at home that tracks each time you and your child wash your hands. Offer a prize or reward at the end of a successful week of handwashing.
  • Take pictures of places where germs live in your environment, such as on the bathroom faucet handle, dog (or its toy or dish) or doorknobs, and post them on the bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator, or near your handwashing chart. This will help remind everyone of when they need to wash their hands.
  • Have young children count to 10 twice while washing their hands to better understand the required 20 seconds. 
  • Cook with your child, emphasizing the importance of washing your hands both before and after handling food.
  • Check out online sites like scrubclub.org for additional fun handwashing ideas.

Handwashing is important for food safety, disease prevention and personal health. Practice proper handwashing and make it a habit all year long. Teaching ourselves and our children the proper way to wash our hands now can help keep us all healthier.

About the Author

Cheryl Luptowski is the Public Information Officer/Home Safety Expert for NSF International, an independent public health and safety organization that certifies products and writes standards in the areas of dietary supplement safety, consumer products, toys, drinking water, and sustainability. Cheryl has been interviewed as a home expert in national print, online and radio and has authored many articles and fact sheets with tips for healthier living. She is the face behind “Ask NSF,” NSF’s online Q & A portal and she chairs the NSF Consumer Advisory Panel.