How Long Should You Wash Your Hands? | Muse Health

Hand Washing     Bacteria     Soap     Safety

It’s something that all of us have been doing since we were born yet it is performed incorrectly all the time. Hand washing has always been and will always be the ultimate defense against the transmission and spread of bacteria. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, frequent hand washing was viewed as a shear fire method to keep yourself and loved ones safe.

An act performed frequently, it may come as a shock that most people wash their hands incorrectly. From rushing through the process to not using the right soap, the general populace may be doing more harm than good. A 2018 report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) concluded that 97% of Americans have improper hand washing technique. This means that a large majority are not ridding their hands of pathogens, which increases the chance of contracting infectious diseases.

Knowing how long to wash your hands as well as how often makes a major difference in the overall wellness of yourself and family.

ands being washed with a bar of soap

How long should you wash your hands?

Hand washing is a practice that should be performed after coming in contact with foreign surfaces, sneezing, coughing, or handling toxic chemicals.

The length of hand washing has been boiled down to a science. While there is still a notion that the temperature of water makes a major difference in getting rid of bacteria, science has yet to come to a conclusion that unequivocally supports those claims. The most important aspect of hand washing is the technique of the lather.

As a rule of thumb, you should spend at least 20-30 seconds rubbing soap into your hands. The reason that this is so important is due to the fact that soap needs time to marinate in the skin before becoming its most effective.

Soap is composed of dual-action molecules known as amphiphiles. They are dual-action because one side of the molecule is attracted to water and repels protein cells, while the other end is attracted to proteins and repels water. This works by having the protein loving side of the cell kill bacteria while the water-loving end keeps the hands from damage.

For those who are not the best with timing, a great way to ensure that you have washed your hands effectively is to sing “happy birthday” twice. It should take you roughly 25-30 seconds to get through the song. After you’re done, wipe your hands dry and rest assured that your hands are clean.

Image of a woman looking for food

Should you wash your hands more before handling food?

It’s always important to be cognizant of the bacteria you could spread when preparing food in the kitchen. For those who are meat-eaters, you should wash your hands before, during, and after handling raw meats and poultry. Not only are these kinds of food bacteria heavy but as you cut through areas of the meats like fat, juices begin to spill. These may get on your hands and the last thing you want is to transfer soiled hands into the next step of the cooking process.

While many acknowledge the importance of washing hands while handling meats and poultry, it’s also a good idea when handling raw fruits and vegetables. A large portion of fruits and vegetables have pesticides on them, making it imperative that you thoroughly clean it before consuming. In addition to pesticides, microorganisms can also be found on the surfaces of these items. You should never eat raw fruits and vegetables without washing your hands first. The potential for cross-contamination is very high whenever handling food.

Image of a Woman and a kid washing hands

How to wash your hands properly: a step by step guide

Although the hand washing process is straightforward, there are common pitfalls that you should be privy to. Whether due to rushing or plain old laziness, the temptation to move quickly through the process can end up doing more harm than good. In order to ensure that we’re all on the same page, we’ve broken down the process step by step. 

  • Always begin by turning on the sink and wetting your hands. A lot of people immediately reach for soap but demonstrations and studies show that wet hands before the application of soap create a better lather. REMEMBER: Hot water does not equate to cleaner hands.
  • Place a quarter sized or generous amount of soap on your hands.
  • Lather the soap by rubbing your hands together and spreading the solution around.
  • Scrub ALL surfaces of your hands including between fingers, on your nails, below nails, backs of your hands, and fingertips. For ultimate cleanliness include the wrists as well.
  • Make sure to spend at least 20-30 seconds lathering the solution all around the hands. If you need help knowing how long 20-30 seconds lasts, sing “Happy Birthday” two times.
  • Rinse your hands well until you see and feel that all solution has been removed.
  • Dry your hands thoroughly with a clean and dry hand towel or air dry.

Using the steps above will streamline the hand washing process and ensure that you always hit the mark.

Image of a man and a woman thinking

How many times a day should you wash your hands

A commonly asked question is how many times a day a person should wash their hands. While it would be great to have a definitive answer that applies to everyone, there are so many factors like the type of job, habits, children, pets, environment, and health that make it impossible to come up with one answer.

The chances are if you feel like you should wash your hands, then you probably should. Because of different lifestyles and other factors promote the spread of germs, you should wash your hands:


  • Before you eat
  • Before you treat a cut or wound
  • Before, during, and after handling food
  • Before and after tending to a sick person
  • After using the restroom
  • After interacting with animals, animal waste, or pet food  
  • After changing a diaper
  • After a sneeze, cough, or blowing your nose
  • After taking out the garbage


The above list is by no means exhaustive but hopefully, it gives you a better understanding of when you should wash your hands. Depending on the activities you partake in and if you have children or pets, the number of times hands are washed will differ.

Image of a woman pointing her fingers up

Take hand washing seriously

Proper hand washing is something that everyone can and should be doing, especially during the coronavirus and flu season. Although life can sometimes feel very busy, it should not be the reason why you cut corners with something like hand hygiene. Taking 20-30 seconds to wash your hands can make a major difference in the number of times you and those around you become sick. Use the information above to become a hand washing master. And as a last tip, use hand sanitizer with a percent alcohol of over 60% to provide extra assurance of clean hands.