Are my Hands Dirty?

Right from our childhood, we have been told to wash hands, umpteen numbers of times. Everyone, starting from our parents, grandparents to teachers at school and doctors in hospitals tell us the same thing. They insist that we need to wash our hands after playing, when we return from our school and most importantly when we sit at the dining table. As a child, most of the times we obeyed (though we hated it and did a 5 seconds hand wash). Many a time, when we goofed up intentionally or un- intentionally and when we were caught in the act, they made sure we washed our hands the right way!

We all heard the phrase “Washing one’s hands of” something, which basically means declaring one’s unwillingness to take responsibility for some act. But in reverse, if we feel responsible for our own health, it is very important we wash our hands – “of the germs“!

So, it is high time, we understood this from a doctor’s perspective what is hand hygiene and why was it given so much importance from time immemorial.

Disease causing organisms or germs as we call them (bacteria, viruses, etc.,) are everywhere around us. They are floating in the air, on the table,  on thefloor and of course, on our plates and cups too. They are too small to be seen by our eyes and hence it is easy for them to soil our hands and  end up in our food and then our body. So, hands that appear to be clean with no obvious dirt on them are not necessarily free of disease- causing germs. It is no surprise these germs are called The Invisible Enemy!

Each winter we end up having running noses or lot of cold with sneezes. Sometimes when we enjoy food from roadside vendors and the very next day we have stomach cramps and forced to use the bathroom again and again. All these are because we have inadvertently ingested some of these germs. It is not only these simple problems but serious issues like cholera and typhoid are also due to poor hygiene. We notice that hospital staff spend lot of time cleaning the premises and especially the nurses and surgeons keep cleaning their hands. Because unlike normal skin, wounds and surgical incisions are more prone to infections. Sometimes, it may not harm the person carrying the germs but can affect the susceptible like the child or the aged who are relatively low in immunity.

We need to remember one thing always: everything we touch has been touched by someone else – The railing on the staircase, the chair we sit, the table we use to write, the door knob we use to open the door and most importantly the hands of our own friends with whom we shake our hands. Almost anything and everything we use on a daily basis can be a source of infection. All these objects harbor a large number of germs, but unfortunately we can’t see them. So subconsciously we pick up these microbes and unconsciously touch our mouth, rub our eyes and pick our food. So, it is pretty easy for us to ingest these microbes. So, a simple but important method to prevent infection, is to wash our hands.



Washing Hands involves use of soap and running water. And when we wash hands it is important that it is vigorous, and we rub the insides of the hands (palms), outside, in between the fingers, and upto the elbows. Most important is to keeping the nails short and cleaning under the nails. It is equally important to ensure, that we spend at least 40-60 seconds washing our hands!

But when we are in the office, public spaces or buses and trains, washing hands is not practical. For such situations carry sanitizers in your handbag.

These are all scented alcohol-based solutions with some amount of emollients to keep the skin soft. It is the alcohol that helps clean the hands. As the alcohol evaporates it dehydrates the germs and kills them. Another good method would be to use sanitizing wipes when travelling.

Drying hands after washing is an equally important part of hand hygiene and it is believed that paper towels are better than the hot air dryers provided in washrooms as these dryers were found ineffective in cleaning the hands and in-fact were found spreading the germs throughout the washroom.

Stop the Infections !

Interestingly, UNICEF believes, just simple washing hands with soap before eating and after using the toilet can save more lives than any single vaccine! It is believed  that hand washing alone can cut deaths from diarrhoea by almost half and deaths from acute respiratory infections by one-quarter. This single statement conveys how important hand washing is! (More than 1,00,000 Children die of viral diarrhoea each year in India alone!) 

Behavioural Change:

Several studies have shown that in many countries, there is a low rate of hand washing with soap. A study of hand washing in 54 countries in 2015 found that on average, 38.7% of households practiced hand washing with soap.

Group hand washing for school children at set times of the day is one option in developing countries to ingrain hand washing in children’s behaviours which when done from childhood would lead to a lifelong good habit with sustained benefits.

Soap and detergents help clean the hands better than plain water. It is believed, that solid soap, because of its reusable nature may harbour some infection and hence it is preferable to always use liquid soap.

Hand washing (with soap and water) is particularly important before cooking, when eating food,  and particularly after using toilet, when your hands are visibly dirty. It is reasonable to use sanitizers at other times for the convenience of the situation.

Let’s change our habit from now! – To start with we can keep the sanitizers in the car. Always pay importance to the most frequently missed areas and to the duration (you can sing ‘happy birthday’ to time yourself). It is important that we inculcate this habit in our children from a very young age. We need to remember this that it is these small things, when done correctly and consistently that help you a live a healthy life.


A series of images taken under a special UV light of a person’s hands before and after washing demonstrate exactly why the practice is so important amid the Covid-19 outbreak. Before the pictures were taken, a clear gel called Glo Germ was rubbed onto the person’s hands which clings to skin just the way germs do.

Under UV light the hands glow, which depicts areas of hand harboring germs (pic 1).
Then the hands are washed and are checked again under the UV light. If hands are not washed properly, the hand still glows, indicating germs are still present on the hands (pic 2), while if it is cleaned in the right way for the right duration, it does not glow under UV light (pic 3) indicating your hands are free of germs.


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