Hand Hygiene FAQ


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.

How do I ensure that I’m washing my hands correctly?

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. Johns Hopkins Medicine has provided a video, Hand-washing Steps Using the WHO Technique, to see the correct technique in action.

What are the key times to wash hands? 

These are CDC's key times you should wash your 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
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • If your hands are visibly dirty or greasy

Which is better, hand sanitizer or handwashing? 

See the CDC's recommendations on when to use hand sanitizers and when to wash your hands.

How does hand hygiene fight antibiotic resistance? 

Hand hygiene helps stop the spread of germs, including ones that can cause antibiotic-resistant infections. Antibiotic resistance happens when germs like bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. That means the germs are not killed and continue to grow. Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant germs are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to treat. Keeping your hands clean by washing your hands with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer is one of the best ways to prevent germs from spreading and avoid infections.

What does it mean when the label of my hand sanitizer says “alcohol”? 

Hand sanitizers labeled as containing the term “alcohol,” used by itself, are expected to contain ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol). Only two alcohols are permitted as active ingredients in alcohol-based hand sanitizers – ethanol (ethyl alcohol) or isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol or 2-propanol). However, the term “alcohol,” used by itself, on hand sanitizer labels specifically refers to ethanol only. Methanol and 1-propanol are not acceptable ingredients in hand sanitizer and can be toxic to humans. Visit Is Your Hand Sanitizer on FDA’s List of Products You Should Not Use? for more information.

What method of hand hygiene is recommended for healthcare workers? 

CDC recommends the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers as the standard method for hand hygiene. For more information, visit Hand Hygiene in Healthcare Settings.

What is required to have a compliant hand hygiene program per The Joint Commission? 

For all healthcare programs to be fully compliant with NPSG.07.01.01 and standard precautions, organizations must implement a hand hygiene program that follows categories IA, IB, and IC of either the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and/ or the current World Health Organization (WHO) hand hygiene guidelines, set goals for improving compliance with hand hygiene guidelines and improve compliance with hand hygiene guidelines based on established goals.

How can I encourage hand sanitization among my employees? 

Remind employees to wash their hands often with soap and water and provide accessible sinks, soap, water, and a way to dry their hands (e.g., paper towels, hand dryer). Give out buttons, and put visual reminders like printoutssigns or posters, in bathrooms or kitchen areas to remind employees to wash their hands. Provide other hygiene supplies such as tissues, no-touch/foot pedal trash cans, and hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol to keep your employees healthy.

Does CDC regulate handwashing in community settings?

No. CDC is not a regulatory agency, and therefore does not enforce compliance with handwashing recommendations. CDC has developed guidance on when and how to properly wash hands in community settings and when and how to clean hands in healthcare settings. Your state or local health department may have handwashing requirements included in their health codes.