A person following the right hand-washing technique

You can do plenty to help prevent the spread of viral and bacterial infections, including the coronavirus. Getting key vaccinations, such as those for influenza and pneumonia, is important, as is staying home from work or school if you do get sick. But one of the most important steps is also one of the simplest: washing your hands regularly.

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“Many different germs can survive on surfaces,” says Tom Talbot, M.D., chief hospital epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. Touching a spot that has been contaminated by germs—at home, at work, or just about anywhere else—puts you at risk of infection if you later touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, all areas that allow microbes to enter your body.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, washing your hands can help you avoid infection from a wide variety of germs, including those that cause flu, norovirus, E.coli, colds, and even the coronavirus that first emerged in Wuhan, China late last year. The coronavirus has spread into other parts of Asia, Europe and the U.S. The CDC now expects that it will begin to spread within communities here.

Washing your hands—the right way and at the right time—eliminates germs before they can make you sick. Here, advice from the experts.

When to Wash

Always wash your hands after you use the bathroom, before you eat food, and any time your hands are visibly dirty, says Janet Haas, Ph.D., R.N., director of epidemiology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and a past president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. It’s easy to pick up or transmit germs in all three of these instances.

“People should also consider cleaning their hands after they’ve been on public transportation,” she adds.

You should also wash your hands after handling raw meat, such as turkey or chicken.

Make sure kids wash their hands when they come into the house after playing outside. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that you wash your hands after touching animals.

If you have a respiratory infection, such as the common cold or the flu, you may want to clean your hands more often than usual, Haas says. That’s because if you’re coughing and sneezing, you could be contaminating your hands and spreading the bug to others.

Be Especially Careful at the Hospital

Though hand hygiene is always important, it’s essential if you’re in the hospital, where severe and sometimes antibiotic-resistant infections can lurk.

And while hospital personnel should also be cleaning their hands diligently, either by washing with soap and water or using hand sanitizer, research shows that doesn’t always happen. According to the CDC and assorted studies, some providers clean their hands as little as half as often as they should.

If you are hospitalized or caring for someone who is, and notice that a healthcare provider hasn’t washed up or used hand sanitizer when entering your room, speak up, by politely asking whether he has washed his hands.

In addition, remind visitors to wash their hands when they enter and leave the room. And if you’re the patient, be sure to keep up with your hand hygiene. Ask for help washing your hands before a meal, or request a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

The Best Way to Wash

Generally, washing with soap and water is the most effective method for reducing the number of germs on your hands.

Plain soap is best. Skip antibacterial products because there’s no evidence that they work any better than regular soap, and they may encourage the breeding of bacteria that can’t be cured by antibiotics.

Scrub for 20 seconds, making sure to wash the backs of your hands, between fingers, and under fingernails.

If you have no access to soap and water, using a hand sanitizer made with at least 60 percent alcohol is the next best option. But hand sanitizers don’t work as well when your hands are visibly dirty, and they won’t eliminate all kinds of germs.

For example, the CDC says that hand sanitizers aren’t as effective as hand washing against the highly contagious stomach bug norovirus.

Another important type of bacteria that hand sanitizers are ineffective against is Clostridioides difficile (C. diff), which causes a hard-to-cure diarrheal infection that’s common in hospitals. That’s why, although hand sanitizers are considered sufficient for some of the routine cleaning that healthcare workers do many times a day, if you have C. diff, they (as well as you and any visitors) must wash with soap and water to avoid spreading the infection. 

Hand Sanitizer Product Claims

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to Gojo Industries, the manufacturer of Purell hand sanitizer. The strong claims Gojo has made about what its products can do—suggesting Purell may be effective against viruses like flu and Ebola, for example—are of a kind that the FDA typically only allows for drugs, rather than personal-care products, the agency wrote.

According to some research, while hand sanitizers may indeed be able to eliminate flu and other common viruses from your hands, there’s little research into how effective it is against Ebola and other rarer viruses. But the FDA says that the way Purell products are labeled would classify them as over-the-counter drugs, and says Gojo hasn’t provided the scientific backup to support that classification. (The company says it’s updating its marketing materials to comply with FDA requirements.)

The bottom line? Wash your hands thoroughly when you can. In a pinch, hand sanitizer is better than nothing at all.