Even the cleanest looking hands can harbour nasty bacteria and germs. They are not always indicative of good hygiene.

A whopping 80% of infectious diseases are transferred by touch. Harmful germs such as bacteria and viruses that cause illness and infection are everywhere, including on our hands.

Stopping the spread of germs is vital to reduce outbreaks of illnesses, including salmonella, the flu, gastroenteritis and the common cold. One simple way for everyone to contribute, including children, in reducing the spread is to develop good hand hygiene practises.

The importance of hand washing was first promoted over 150 years ago by Ignaz P. Semmelweiss, a Hungarian obstetrician. Dr. Semmelweiss discovered how the simple act of hand washing and better hygiene could reduce infection rates among newborn babies.

Since then, hand washing and hand hygiene has gained traction and is now regarded as one of the most effective methods in reducing the spread of germs, infection and illness.

Hand washing is especially important for children, who along with the elderly and sick, are a vulnerable age group and germs spread easily when children are playing in close proximity to each other.

Illness and infection are common among these groups due to the vulnerability of their immune systems, so hand washing is vital in preventing germs spreading.

Vacancy.Care knows how hard parents work to keep their children safe from the risk of infection and illness. Hand hygiene might seem fairly simple, but it goes a long way to keeping kids (and adults) from getting sick.

In this article, we look at why hand washing is important, when to hand wash and some easy but effective ways to teach children life-long hand hygiene habits.

Hand hygiene facts

Here is a scary hand hygiene fact: only 5% of people around the world wash their hands properly. That means harmful germs can be anywhere and there really is nowhere on earth to hide.

Given we cannot hide from or avoid germs, we can work to preventing the spread of germs.

There are four types of germs:

  • Bacteria
  • Virus
  • Protozoa
  • Fungi

Bacteria and viruses are germs most likely to cause illness and infection in humans.

Germs spread through touching things, people and certain body parts, such as the nose and mouth, plus through open wounds on the body. They can also spread through the air, such as through sneezing and coughing.

Hand hygiene is vital for good hygiene. Since Dr. Ignaz P. Semmelweiss’ theory came to light all those years ago, research has shown how hand washing continues to be effective in reducing the spread of germs, illness or infection.

Keeping good hand hygiene is an easy way to prevent pathogens from transferring from one person to another through touch.

Hand hygiene is also an important way to reduce the number of sick days children take from school.

For example, school children who practice good hand hygiene and wash their hands four times every day experienced almost 25% less sick days with respiratory illnesses and more than 50% less sick days with stomach issues, compared to children who didn’t wash hands once during the day.

That means less time off work for parents caring for young children with illnesses.

The examples mentioned – respiratory infections and gastrointestinal illnesses – are especially dangerous for children.

Both cause serious complications for a child’s developing immune system, so it is vital that parents and teachers help kids understand why we hand wash properly, when and how to do it properly.

Better hand hygiene could also help keep more people out of Australia’s already strained health system. Hand washing non-compliance is reported to be responsible for an extra 2 million hospital days every single year.

That is a lot of unnecessary time spent in our hospitals and a huge amount of public resources and funds wasted, simply because someone chose not to wash their hands properly.

Germs on hands facts

Germs on hands cause illness and infection among millions of people every year.

Any parent or person who has ever changed a nappy has likely had faeces, colloquially known as ‘poo’, on their hands, and therefore, a whole heap of germs.

A piece of poo the weight of a paper clip contains millions upon millions of germs. These germs include familiar names such as salmonella, norovirus, E.Coli and hand-foot-mouth disease, a disease that commonly spreads in child care settings.

These diseases are unpleasant to adults and children alike, and in some cases, can cause catastrophic and even fatal complications.

Pneumonia and diarrhea are the leading causes of death among young children throughout the world.

It is a sad fact, but almost 2 million children aged under 5 years old will die as a result of pneumonia and disease caused by diarrhea, which are both infections caused by germs.

The simple act of proper hand washing could go a long way in preventing diarrhea in up to 33% more children, in preventing pneumonia and similar infections in up to 20% more children.

These are yet further reasons why hand washing is so important after going to the toilet, handling a soiled nappy or after helping a child wipe themselves after going to the toilet.

It is also important to wash hands after handling raw meat, as this can also contain small particles of poo.

Bacteria on hands facts

Every square centimetre of skin on the human hand houses around 1,500 bacteria. The majority of lives around the fingertips and under the nails, which are areas often neglected the most during hand washing procedures.

Hand washing should take 15-20 seconds to effectively remove most of the bacteria, although the majority of people rarely achieve this, with just six seconds the average time spent hand washing.

It takes just 15 seconds to remove 10 times more bacteria than not washing at all.

The palm and between the fingers are usually the focus, even though the level of bacteria doubles under the fingertips after a trip to the toilet.

Bacteria can even follow you after you leave the toilet, with particles spreading when the toilet lid is left up during flushing. A public bathroom sink usually bears the brunt of this bacteria.

Proper hand washing will help eliminate this harmful bacteria, help stop the spread of germs and reduce instances of illness.

Hand washing fun facts

There are certainly some hand washing ‘fun facts’ that will hopefully help our readers think more about the importance of good hand hygiene.

For example, seemingly inanimate objects are breeding grounds for bacteria.

That button in the lift of your hotel, work or apartment building has over 20% more bacteria on it than the toilet seat.

Poo, a common carrier of harmful germs, is found in 16% of mobile phones, 14% of bank notes and around 10% of all credit cards.

This might sound funny but it is an eye opener when you think how many Australians possess or come into contact with one or more of these items, and how frequently we touch them.

Washing hands after going to the toilet might be second nature to most people, but there are 15% of men and 7% of women who don’t do it at all.

While 85% of men and 93% of women are well versed in handwashing after the toilet, only 39% of people wash their hands after blowing their nose, sneezing or coughing, meaning the message about when to wash hands is not getting through to almost half of all Australians.

How to wash hands for kids

Stopping the spread of germs through effective handwashing is everyone’s responsibility. Parents should start teaching their children to wash hands as early as possible.

Even if children are too little to wash their hands at the bathroom basin, parents can teach them the basics by wiping their hands with a wet cloth or baby wipes.

Parents should apply the same methods as teaching older children how to wash hands and use simple, clear language and fun activities, which we will take about in the next section.

A big part of learning to wash hands properly is to know when to wash hands. It is important to wash hands prior to touching certain things, and to wash them after touching something that may have germs living on it.

Below are some common times when children and adults should wash their hands.

Children and adults should wash hands before:

  • Touching or handling food, cooking or baking.
  • Visiting a sick person in hospital.
  • Touching a wound, cut or rash.
  • Between handling raw and cooked or ready-to-eat food (for children who are old enough.)

Additionally, adults should wash hands before:

Adults and children should wash hands after:

  • Touching, cuddling or holding a sick child, such as a sibling.
  • Touching cutlery, drinking cups and other objects.
  • Touching a wound.
  • Touching pets or other animals.
  • Hands become visibly dirty.
  • Using the toilet.
  • Blowing nose, sneezing or coughing.
  • Handling rubbish or anything that might contain dirty germs.
  • Touching raw meat.

Additionally, adults should wash hands after:

  • Changing nappies.
  • Using the toilet, or after helping child go to the toilet.
  • Using the toilet.
  • Wiping your nose or child’s nose.
  • Touching, cuddling or holding a sick child.
  • Touching cutlery, drinking cups and other objects a sick child has touched.
  • Touching a wound.
  • Touching pets or other animals.
  • Blowing nose, sneezing or coughing.
  • Cleaning up blood, vomit or other body fluids.
  • Cleaning the house.

Now you know when to wash hands, we will have a look at the how.

There are several steps to thorough hand washing to kill the majority of harmful bacteria.

To wash the hands using soap:

Remove any jewellery, including rings, so no part of the hands are left unwashed.

Wet the hands with warm, running water.

Apply soap – this can be antibacterial, scented or a plain bar of soap.

Cover hands in soap by running hands together, including the backs of the hands, fingertips and between the fingers.

Continue to rub hands for 15-20 seconds.

Rinse away any remaining soap.

Turn off the tap and dry hands, preferably with a clean towel, paper towel or with a hand dryer.

If you don’t have soap and water available, use an alcohol-based hand rub or hand sanitiser.

When using hand sanitiser:

Remove any jewellery, including rings, so no part of the hands are missed.

Empty a small blob on the palm, about the size of a 10 cent coin.

Rub the sanitiser all over the hands, including the backs of the hands, fingertips and between the fingers.

Rub for 15-20 seconds, or until the hands are dry.

Small bottles of hand sanitiser are readily available, and it is a good idea to have a couple of bottles handy for when soap and water are not available.

There are plenty of other ways to practice good hand hygiene, all of which parents can teach children to do.

These include:

Setting the best example for children by hand washing properly and encouraging children to do the same.

Keeping sick kids away from childcare, school or social activities to avoid the spread of germs.

Sneezing and coughing into a tissue, not the hands, and throwing tissues in the bin immediately after use.

Using clean towels in the bathroom, and washing them on a regular basis.

Regularly cleaning toys, especially those belonging to young children, who frequently put toys and other objects in their mouth.

Teaching children to share toys, but not personal items such as toothbrushes.

Hand washing games

Handwashing is a simple yet effective way to stop the spread of germs. It is, however, not easy for young children – or some adults – to remember to wash their hands, when to wash them, or how to do it thoroughly.

For this reason, parents can try some fun hand washing games with their children. Games should be fun, simple to remember and in some way, explain why hand hygiene is important.

Whether you make them up yourself or base them on existing games, should focus on:

  • When they need to hand wash and some strategies for remembering when to wash.
  • How to wash properly and thoroughly.
  • How to dry their hands properly.

Some hand washing games for children include:

Hand washing activities

Along with games, parents can try other hand washing activities to help children get into good habits. Like games, they should be fun, simple and make it easy for children to learn the methods of hand washing and why hand hygiene is important.

Some examples of hand washing activities include:

  • Making up a song to remember to wash hands.
  • Making or using a star chart.
  • Making a poster for the bathroom, which is a great activity for ages 2-10 years.
  • Making up a story or a play focusing on the importance of handwashing and the effects of not handwashing, such as illness. Older children will most benefit from this activity.
  • Looking at hand washing videos

Hand washing statistics

Since the importance of hand washing rose to prominence, many studies and statistics have shown what people do well…and not so well.

Despite the fact that the simple act of hand washing has been proven to prevent around a third of illness caused by diarrhea, and a fifth of respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold, hand washing hygiene continues to be a problem.

33% of people who use public bathrooms fail to wash their hands after. Further to this, 95% people don’t wash their hands properly or effectively enough to remove bacteria.

Raising this number is challenging, considering that throughout the globe, only 3 in 5 people had access to basic hand washing facilities in 2017.

Interesting facts about hand washing

There certainly are some interesting facts about hand washing, plus plenty of misconceptions.

For example, many people believe that hot water is best for hand washing – the hotter the water, the better.

This is simply not true. Water that is an ideal temperature to kill the bacteria would also scald the hands. Ouch.

Hand washing at various temperatures has also been shown to make little difference to bacteria on the skin. It is much safer to wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitiser if soap and water is not available, and scrub vigorously.

Another study showed that vigorous scrubbing removes the most bacteria. The only real difference found was that the more vigorous the scrubbing, the more friction is created and the more bacteria is removed.

Here are some more interesting facts about hand washing:

●     Using regular soap is just as effective as using antibacterial soap, despite marketing companies claiming they provide a deeper clean.

●     Moisturising is just as important for hand hygiene, as dry skin leads to cracks, cuts and abrasions. These types of wounds put hands at an increased risk of infection.

●     The area people miss the most when washing hands is between fingers, the wrists, the thumb and the fingernails.

●     Jet air dryers were found to increase levels of bacteria on the fingertips by almost 50%.

●     Warm air dryers were the worst offenders, however, with researching finding they increased levels of bacteria on the fingertips by a huge 194%!

●     Using a paper towel reduced the number of bacteria on the fingertips by up to 76%.

Hand washing trivia

Along with some interesting statistics, there is also plenty of hand washing trivia out there!

Hand washing is not just a way to practise good hygiene. It is also a symbol of physical and spiritual purity. In some religions, including Judaism and Christianity, hand washing symbolises the transformation to a higher level of purity.

Did you also know that in some parts of the world, soap substitutes include mud, soil sand and ash for hand washing?

In Africa, soap is not readily available like it is in the western world, so some communities turn to natural, alkaline resources for hand hygiene. Using soil or ash is considered better than using water alone for hand washing.

The World Health Organization has even recommended people use natural resources such as sand or ash if the soap is not readily available.

There are disadvantages to this method however – if the soil or ash are contaminated, this means there will be a higher risk of harmful germs, illness and infection in the material.

In summary

Wash your hands thoroughly, regularly and with soap and water or hand sanitiser.

This simple act can help prevent millions of cases of illness each and every year, yet so many of us truly know how to wash our hands properly, let alone teach our children good habits!

We can’t always be there to remind you to wash your hands, or help your children to do it, but we hope this article has given you an insight into why hand washing is so important for good hygiene and good health.

We also hope it has provided you with some practical methods to help children learn how to wash hands and when to wash.

Happy hand washing!