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Hand Hygiene FAQ

Handwashing is one of the best ways to protect yourself and your family from getting sick. Get answers to frequently asked questions about washing your hands and using hand sanitizer in community settings.

Handwashing Steps

Do I really need to wash my hands for 20 seconds?
Scientific studies show that you need to scrub for 20 seconds to remove harmful germs and chemicals from your hands. If you wash for a shorter time, you will not remove as many germs. Make sure to scrub all areas of your hands, including your palms, backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your fingernails.

How does handwashing with soap and water remove germs and chemicals?
Soap and water, worked into a lather, trap and remove germs and chemicals from hands. Wetting your hands with clean water before applying soap helps you get a better lather than applying soap to dry hands. A good lather forms pockets called micelles that trap and remove germs, harmful chemicals, and dirt from your hands.

Lathering with soap and scrubbing your hands for 20 seconds is important to this process because these actions physically destroy germs and remove germs and chemicals from your skin. When you rinse your hands, you wash the germs and chemicals down the drain.

Should I use a paper towel to turn off the faucet after washing my hands?
CDC recommends turning off the faucet after wetting your hands to reduce water use. Then, turn it on again after you have washed them for 20 seconds, to rinse off the soap. If you are concerned about getting germs on your hands after you wash them, you can use a paper towel, your elbow, or another hands-free way to turn off the faucet.


Is antibacterial soap better than plain soap?
Use plain soap and water to wash your hands. Studies have not found any added health benefit from using antibacterial soap, other than for professionals in healthcare settings. In 2016, FDA banned over-the-counter sale of antibacterial soaps that contain certain ingredients

Is bar soap better than liquid soap?
Both bar and liquid soap work well to remove germs. Use plain soap in either bar or liquid form to wash your hands.

Water and Handwashing

What if I have water but no soap to wash my hands?
If you don’t have soap and water, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. If you don’t have hand sanitizer or soap, but do have water, rub your hands together under the water and dry them with a clean towel or air dry. Rubbing your hands underwater will rinse some germs from your hands, even though it’s not as effective as washing with soap.

Is it better to use warm water or cold water?
Use your preferred water temperature – cold or warm – to wash your hands. Warm and cold water remove the same number of germs from your hands. The water helps create soap lather that removes germs from your skin when you wash your hands. Water itself does not usually kill germs; to kill germs, water would need to be hot enough to scald your hands.

What if the water is dirty or contaminated?
Your hands can get germs on them if you place them in water that looks dirty, is contaminated (for example, during an emergency), or has germs in it from previous use, such as a basin with water used for bathing. That’s why CDC recommends using clean, running water to wash your hands. If you don’t have access to clean, running water, use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol to get rid of germs.

If you don’t have clean, running water or hand sanitizer, you can still remove germs from your hands by washing with clear water. You can also make water safe to use by boiling, adding the proper amount of disinfectant such as a mild bleach solution, or filtering it. Use the cleanest water possible to wash your hands. Avoid using cloudy water or water that may be contaminated with harmful chemicals or toxins, such as toxins made by harmful algal blooms.

If my utility has issued a Boil Water Advisory, can I still use tap water to wash my hands?
In most cases, it is safe to wash your hands with soap and tap water during a Boil Water Advisory. Follow the guidance from your local public health officials or water utility. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.

Drying Hands

Should I dry my hands using a paper towel or an air dryer?
There is currently not enough scientific evidence to determine if using a clean towel or an air hand dryer to dry your hands is more effective at reducing germs on your hands. Both are effective ways to dry your hands. Germs spread more easily when hands are wet, so make sure to dry your hands completely, whatever method you use.

Should I reuse a towel to dry my hands at home?
CDC recommends using a clean towel if you are using a towel to dry your hands. Reusable towels are a practical option at home. They should be changed when visibly dirty and before they develop mildew from remaining damp.

Germs and Bathrooms

Will touching bathroom door handles make my hands dirty again after I wash them?
Scientists don’t know if you would get a significant number of germs on your hands from touching a bathroom door handle. That’s because it has not been specifically studied. If you’re concerned about getting germs on your hands after you wash them, you can use a paper towel, your elbow, shirt, or another hands-free way to open the door.

Should I wash my hands after using the bathroom at home?
CDC recommends always washing your hands after you use the bathroom, whether it is in your home or somewhere else. Germs in feces (poop) can make you sick. These germs can get on your hands after you use the bathroom or change a diaper. If you don’t wash them off, you can pass them from person to person and make people sick. Make a habit of washing your hands after you use the bathroom every time to reduce your chance of getting sick and spreading germs.

Key Times to Wash

You can help yourself and your loved ones stay healthy by washing your hands often, especially during key times when you are likely to be exposed to, and spread, germs.

What are the key times to wash hands?

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage
  • If your hands are visibly dirty or greasy

After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, you should immediately clean your hands by either washing them with soap and water or using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.


Information provided by the CDC.

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