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Now more than ever, understanding the benefits of handwashing is an important, even life-saving endeavor. Proper hand hygiene can help stop the spread of germs, protecting you and those around you from illness. And with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, clean hands are crucial. But this focus on hygienic fingers and palms has also highlighted some spurious historic practices were washing is concerned.

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As you’ve no doubt heard, the world is in the grip of a deadly pandemic. The spread of COVID-19, as it’s come to be known, has been unprecedented in the modern world. A virulent strain of the coronavirus group, the infection’s most common symptoms include fever and continuous cough. And it’s the latter that helps transfer the infection from one person to another.

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COVID-19, it seems, can spread through the infected droplets released when a person with the infection coughs or sneezes. Anyone unlucky enough to be in close proximity to that person may well inhale, or simply be covered, in unseen viruses that can easily become an infection. Luckily, there are some things that you can do to help minimize the risk to your health.

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Health professionals and governments have suggested several ways to minimize your chances of becoming infected with COVID-19. They include staying at home, avoiding public interactions and, perhaps most importantly, washing your hands. The pandemic, which began in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, has now touched most countries, with often deadly results.

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Since November 2019, at the time of writing there had been around 340,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of March 2020, just over 14,700 have been killed by the infection, representing around 4 percent of the total. The virus itself affects the upper respiratory tract, including the lungs, causing a sore throat and dry cough. In mild cases, that’s about as dangerous as it’ll feel. That’s not the case, however, with a severe bout of the condition.

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As seen around the world, in more severe instances, the infection can be deadly. Those at risk include seniors and people suffering from an underlying condition, such as diabetes or even asthma. In cases such as these, the condition can lead to pneumonia and organ failure. So, with results like these, it’s clear that handwashing has an important part to play in the fight against disease.

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Of course handwashing isn’t just about visible hygiene. Lots of health threats are invisible to the naked eye, such as the common cold and COVID-19. And that means that clean hands are essential to protecting yourself and others. Don’t just take our word for it. As Jennifer Aniston used to say, here comes the science…

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Indeed, studies conducted into the benefits of proper handwashing show that soap and water can reduce the number of bacteria present by a whopping 92 percent. How does it do that? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First, believe it or not, simply rubbing your hands together underwater helps you shed some of those microbial nasties. But the science doesn’t end there.

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Some viruses, COVID-19 included, are wrapped in a fatty layer, sometimes known as a lipid envelope. The ingredients in soap help break down that shell, disabling and then killing the bacteria in the process. And that’s why the use of soap is essential to proper hand hygiene. But not all soap is created equal.

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Recent studies have shown that there are some differences in the effectiveness of certain forms of soap. For instance, foaming detergents aren’t as good at getting rid of those nasty microbes as gel or liquid ones are. And as for bar soap, make sure you’re drying it out and rinsing it before and after use. Leaving it wet allows bacteria to build up and puts you at risk. But what’s the best way to clean you hands? We’re glad you asked…

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If the results of a 2013 study are anything to go by, it seems that lot of people aren’t quite sure of the best way to properly clean their hands. More worryingly, it seems some don’t even bother to wash them at all. A group of trained watchers observed more than 3,700 people at the sink, and what they saw may shock you.

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Of the 3,700 subjects, a whopping 10 percent didn’t even attempt to wash their hands. Thankfully, most of the group managed some form of cleansing, with the most popular version nicknamed “the splash and dash,” which is a quick rinse with just water. But the biggest problem, it seems, was the amount of time spent washing.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control, or the CDC, handwashing should last for 20 seconds. If you’re wondering, that’s as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” through a couple of times. During that 20 seconds, though, there are some things you have to pay attention to. A thorough cleaning, though, means making sure you hit the bits that you might otherwise miss.

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This can include nail beds and fingernails as well as the lower palm and back of the hand. So a good scrubbing is definitely essential to the process. Once you’ve rinsed the soap off, however, you’re still not quite done. Drying your hands properly can also help get rid of those microbial nasties. So make friends with the paper towels, and don’t shake your hands dry.

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While having clean hands might sound like good old-fashioned common sense to us, that wasn’t always the case. Just over a century ago, in fact, we didn’t even know germs existed. Instead, the belief was that disease came from two places. It was either passed down from family members or came from the miasma.

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The miasma, believe it or not, was essentially bad air or smells. Many believed that this noxious gas carried disease and could infect those it came into contact with. As a result, handwashing was practically non-existent, even in the medical profession. It wasn’t until 1848 that a Hungarian physician theorized that something like germs might even exist. That doctor’s name was Ignaz Semmelweis, and his ideas, unfortunately, were the end of him.

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While working at Vienna’s General Hospital in Austria, Semmelweis noticed something rather odd. He observed that the maternity ward run by doctors had a significantly higher mortality rate than the labor clinic run by midwives. The new mothers were regularly dying of childbed fever, and the doctor wanted to know why.

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Semmelweis observed that doctors would regularly attend and perform autopsies before rushing up to the maternity ward to deliver a baby, without handwashing in between. Then, one of the doctors cut his hand during a post-mortem and later died of childbed fever. This led the curious physician to come to a novel conclusion.

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Semmelweis posited the theory that doctors were transferring particles from the cadavers to patients on the maternity ward and causing the deadly fever. As a solution, he suggested that physicians should clean their hands thoroughly between the morgue and the delivery room. But he didn’t want them to use water.

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In fact, Semmelweis advised the doctors to clean their hands in chlorine solution. That’s bleach to you and me. Yup, the physicians were washing their hands in a corrosive substance. Despite that, though, the experiment was a success. The mortality rate at the doctor-run clinic dropped dramatically, proving that handwashing was a good idea. Or it did in theory, at least.

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Despite proving that infections can be transferred from one person to another, it seems the world just wasn’t ready to accept that we’re all capable of carrying and passing on infection. As historian Nancy Tomes told The Guardian in 2020, “[People] didn’t have that conception of themselves as sort of walking Petri dishes.”

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But Semmelweis’ problems didn’t end there. The medical profession, it seems, really didn’t like the idea that they might not be as hygienic as they thought. As Tomes put it,“The majority of doctors in Vienna at this time were from middle or upper-class families. They thought of themselves as very clean people compared with the working-class poor. He was insulting them when he said their hands could be dirty.”

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As a result of the backlash to Semmelweis’ ideas, the physician lost his job, his career and ultimately,his life. After a breakdown, he died in a psychiatric unit aged just 47. All, however, was not lost, and others began to understand the idea of germs. Famously, Louis Pasteur, realized that unseen pathogens could be killed with heat, leading to much safer cream for your coffee. And the microscopic breakthroughs just kept coming.

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In 1876 scientists began to identify different bacteria for the first time, creating the medical bacteriology area of study. After anthrax was discovered, tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid and diphtheria quickly followed. As a result, physicians finally began to take handwashing seriously. Joseph Lister, the British surgeon then developed antiseptic operations, which included clean hands. By the turn of the 20th century, everyone was washing their hands.

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In fact, citizens were kept informed about the new hygiene through one of the first-ever public health information campaigns to help stop the spread of tuberculosis. As Tomes told The Guardian, scientists “had shown that tuberculosis was not something you inherited from your grandmother, but that your grandmother coughed on you, and that’s why you got it.”

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The general public at the time took the whole cleanliness thing incredibly seriously as a result. As Tomes told The Guardian, “People got totally phobic about shaking hands or kissing each other when they understood that their mouth, their skin and their hair had all these germs on them.” And that led to some important social changes.

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As a result of the germ revelations, men stopped growing beards, believing that the facial hair was more likely to harbor germs than a clean-shaven, easily kept face. In addition, food products began to be sold individually wrapped, after the new hygiene led to a “fear of germs and hands touching things,” Tomes told The Guardian.

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With the 20th century came vaccines and antibiotics, which saw infection rates from bacterial diseases plummet. Some think, though, that this lead to some complacency among younger generations. Tomes admits that she was one of those who saw cleanliness as just fussy. “We thought all this [hygiene] stuff was bourgeois nonsense,” the historian told The Guardian. “Being a hippy involved embracing the wonders of your microbial self.”

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The resurgence of sexually transmitted diseases during the 1970s and the advent of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s reminded us that we don’t have all the answers where viruses are concerned. Following that, SARS and H1N1, as well as antibiotic-resistant bugs proved that infections continue to evolve, and human practices are responsible for at least some of that evolution.

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Overprescription of antibiotics is leading to strains of bacteria that simply aren’t affected by them. On top of that, both SARS and H1N1 developed through contact with humans, most likely through intensive farming practices. So our relationship with bacteria and viruses is a deeply complicated one, something that will no doubt continue for the entirety of human history. But that doesn’t mean we’re just at the mercy of virulent infections.

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As two HIV/AIDS patients proved early in 2020, we now have a way to almost completely repress that infection. It’s not a complete cure, but it does show what science is capable of when faced with such an enormous threat. Similarly with different strains of the flu, we’re able to offer vaccinations to vulnerable people ahead of the winter infection season, no doubt saving countless lives.

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And while there is currently no cure for COVID-19, scientists are busy working on a vaccine that will protect the public from the infection. As for those already diagnosed, treatment in mild cases involves self-isolation, acetaminophen and regular fluid intake. For more serious cases, hospitalization may be necessary, including ventilation to help with breathing and a stay in intensive care. But for those who haven’t yet been affected, there are things you can do to protect yourself and others.

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As we mentioned, there are lots of ways to help, not only avoiding getting ill yourself, but to also stop others getting sick as well. And, of course, handwashing plays a big part. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Petra Klepac says this simple action is crucial to containing the virus. She told The Guardian, “You don’t have pharmaceutical interventions. You don’t have a vaccine. This is why we’re looking at nonpharmaceutical measures that are easily implemented.”

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For biology professor Miryam Wahrman, though, handwashing can be powerful in other ways as well. “You can say to people: ‘Here’s one thing you can do to lower your risk.’” She sees that simple act is, in fact, empowering. It’s simple. It’s right there and doesn’t cost anything.” And her enthusiasm did end there.

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Wahrman went on, “Wash your hands with soap before you touch your mouth, your nose or your eyes. It’s empowering because it really does make a difference.” And according to all the advice given out by governments during the COVID-19 crisis, she’s absolutely right. No matter which hand sanitizer you’re using, which should contain at least 60 percent alcohol, nothing is as effective as soap and water.

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However, if soap is in short supply, which, let’s face it, isn’t out of the realms of possibility, don’t despair. According to a 2011 study, just rubbing your hands together under running water can be useful. Researchers at London’s School of Tropical Hygiene found that that simple process can remove up to 75 percent of microbial nasties. Admittedly, though, using soap takes that number down to 8 percent.

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Co-director for Simmons University’s Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community, Elizabeth Scott, agrees with Wahrman’s analysis. As she told WebMD in March 2020, “You can’t necessarily control what you touch. You can’t control who else touched it. But you can look after your own hands.” And that would seem to be the very definition of health empowerment.

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In fact, as Scott put it, “In the final analysis, it’s the hands. The hands are the connecting piece.” And as the world continues to work out the puzzle that is COVID-19, it really is down to us to do everything that we can to help prevent the spread of the virus.

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So in addition to keeping your distance from other people, working from home where you can and only going out when absolutely necessary, it’s clear that clean hands are imperative to our good health. And that means paying attention to things that we might have let slip in the past.

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Make sure you’re washing your hands before you touch your face or after you’ve sneezed or coughed on them. And that’s in addition to the other reasons we mentioned earlier. Pay close attention when you’re cleaning them and dry them properly. By completing this simple action, you could be saving lives.

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