Best Practices for Handwashing This Flu Season

Get advice from a CDC expert on how to reduce the spread of flu in your workplace.

flu, cleaning, wellness

Many businesses are taking extra precautions to minimize the risk of flu in their workplace. And while it sounds simple, a lot of that effort starts with proper handwashing. To help in that effort, we spoke with David Berendes, an interdisciplinary epidemiologist on the Global Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Team of the Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Q: Are there certain activities in a workplace which should prompt someone thoroughly wash their hands?

A: There are some key times to wash your hands while in the workplace, similar to other settings. These include before eating lunch or preparing any sort of food, after using the bathroom, and after sneezing, blowing one’s nose, or other similar contact. Washing your hands at these times is crucial to prevent yourself from getting sick, but also to prevent any sickness from spreading to your coworkers.

Q: What are the most effective techniques to use when washing your hands? Or common mistakes made/misperceptions?

A: The most effective technique involves five key steps:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

The most common mistake is not scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds, which research has shown is important to effectively remove germs. Another common mistake is not wetting hands before applying soap. There is also the perception that a certain temperature of water is more or less effective at washing hands. There’s no evidence that any particular water temperature is better or worse for you, so feel free to use whatever temperature you’d like.

Q: How many times during the workday should an employee wash their hands? Does that go up during flu season?  

A: We don’t recommend a set number of times to wash hands per day, but rather we want to make sure employees wash their hands at key times to prevent spreading germs. This includes before handling food, after using the bathroom, and after sneezing or blowing one’s nose.

Q: What about the areas around the sinks and restrooms themselves—how should they be managed to ensure that the activity of handwashing has the desired effect?

A: Recent findings from focus groups with the general public suggested that the condition of the restroom played a role in people’s ability and desire to wash their hands. Participants mentioned that dirty, grimy restrooms made them feel more ‘unclean’ and they were actually less likely to wash their hands. Additionally, making sure adequate products (paper towels, soap, etc.) were stocked was important in participants feeling like washing their hands would be productive. Participants felt like washing their hands in dirty bathrooms would add to the amount of germs on their hands. This feedback suggests that keeping restrooms clean and well-stocked may increase people’s desire and ability to wash their hands after using the restroom.

Q: Are there certain soaps or ingredients in soaps that are most effective in managing germs?

A: As long as the soap follows manufacturer’s formulations (i.e. is not diluted in the case of liquid soap), all soaps are, in general, equally good for removing germs when the user follows the steps outlined above.

Q: If you can’t wash your hands for a prolonged period what things should you avoid doing?

A: If you can’t wash your hands immediately, avoiding contact with your face may help reduce the chance that germs on your hands get into your body. However, if you are in a place where you need to wash your hands but don’t have soap and water available, we suggest using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content.

Q: Do you have advice for how organizations should promote proper hand hygiene in their workplace?

A: We’re actively engaging in research in this area to determine the most effective methods for promoting hand hygiene in the workplace. In general, we suggest that restrooms and employee areas where handwashing occurs remain clean and well-stocked, and that the organization promote hand hygiene in key physical and virtual locations as a reminder of its low-cost benefits.