- According to a new USDA study, as many as 97% of us don’t wash our hands correctly — leading to cross-contamination all over our kitchens and homes.
- Most of us rush through washing our hands — which doesn’t kill enough germs — and we also frequently don’t use clean towels to dry them.
- Dangerous bacteria including the dreaded E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus thrive on our incorrect hand-washing — both can be serious and even fatal.
- Always wash your hands thoroughly according to the CDC’s guidelines for your best chance at good sanitation and disease prevention.
Hand washing is one of the first things you re-learn if you ever take food safety and sanitation classes — which are a requirement of working in most professional kitchens.
That’s because no matter what our parents taught us, nearly all of us have been washing our hands wrong all this time.
Now we have a quantifiable number for that nagging suspicion: According to a new US Department of Agriculture study, we collectively wash our hands incorrectly around 97% of the time.
How we’re washing incorrectly.
You know the drill: You’re in a huge hurry, so you speed through washing your hands. You might use plenty of soap and warm-bordering-on-hot water — but you do it for way less than the necessary 20 seconds required to do anything about bacteria.
Also, when is the last time you changed that bathroom or kitchen hand towel? If you can’t remember, it’s definitely time for a new one. In a study of 383 people spread across six test kitchens in North Carolina, a large number of study participants didn’t do either of those things correctly.
The study also found that after washing incorrectly while preparing burgers, study participants spread bacteria all over their kitchen facilities— to things like spice jars, counters, and refrigerator door handles.
That means that even the 3% who did wash their hands correctly could easily pick up the germs spread around by the 97% who washed incorrectly.
Why it matters so much for food safety and general health.
The rules are simple: We can’t perceive bacteria with the naked eye.
Bacteria are naturally present everywhere — but some harmful ones, such as E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus — more commonly known as staph — can cause serious illness and even death. That’s why washing our hands properly to avoid cross-contamination is so important.
That’s just talking about bacterial contamination and food in your kitchen — not fecal matter, which is also a problem. Sorry, this is about to get gross, but this is a prime reason we need to do better at how we wash our hands.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, fecal matter can spread salmonella, E. coli, and norovirus. Also, a single gram of human feces — which can get on your hands after you use the toilet, but also after a diaper change or helping a young child use the bathroom — can contain a whopping one trillion germs.
When you handle any type of meat, you’re also greatly increasing your risk for spreading bacteria around. Working with meat of all kinds — including fish and poultry — requires special attention and care to how you clean your hands and anything the meat touches — yes, even if you’re just grilling and not doing anything fancy.
How to wash correctly, according to the CDC.
You should always be washing your hands correctly — whether you handle food or not. It’s good general practice for living for everyone — young and old alike.
To wash correctly, follow the following steps:
- Thoroughly wet your hands with clean, running tap water — warm or cold is okay. Turn off the tap — you won’t need it for the next few steps.
- Apply soap. Lather your hands, paying special attention to the backs of your hands, in between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Spend at least 20 seconds actively scrubbing your hands after lathering. The CDC suggests singing “Happy Birthday” to yourself if you need a timer— even if you only do it in your head.
- Rinse all the soap off your hands under more clean, running water.
- Use a clean towel to dry your hands — or simply let them air dry.
If you’re picnicking outdoors and don’t have access to clean, running water, the CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol to clean your hands.
It’s not perfect, and won’t eliminate all types of germs — but it’s still much better than nothing. Since alcohol can be very drying to the skin, look for a hand sanitizer with the proper amount of alcohol that is also a lotion.
Finally, a word about towels: Professional kitchens have strict sanitation rules they must follow. One of these is to always use clean towels for everything — as well as to have a designated place to store dirty towels so they can be laundered every day.
While those rules don’t exist for home kitchens, it might not be a bad idea to institute something similar for your own peace of mind — especially if you’re handling any type of meat.