Cedars-Sinai Blog

Scrub and Sanitize: Why Washing Your Hands Matters

Woman washing her hands at a sink.
Michael Ben-Aderet, MD, associate medical director of Hospital Epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai.

Michael Ben-Aderet, MD

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought more attention to the importance of washing your hands to prevent the spread of viruses, germs and disease.

While washing your hands seems like a simple practice, it's key to not only reducing your risk of getting sick, but also for protecting those around you.

We talked to Dr. Michael Ben-Aderet, associate medical director of Hospital Epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai, about when we should wash our hands, the differences between soap and hand sanitizer and whether it's possible to wash your hands too much.

"While bacteria and viruses can spread in different ways, hand hygiene is a simple and effective way to prevent infections from spreading."

Why is washing our hands so essential to public health?

Dr. Michael Ben-Aderet: As human beings, we use our hands to interact with the world in many ways. Communicable illnesses are spread through contact with germs such as bacteria and viruses, and these are often spread from surface to surface by human contact, causing us to be infected.

While bacteria and viruses can spread in different ways, hand hygiene is a simple and effective way to prevent infections from spreading.

When should you wash your hands?

MBA:  As a general rule, you should be washing your hands before handling things that are going into your body or after you come into contact with germs. For example, every time you blow your nose, cough or sneeze into your hand, you're potentially coming into contact with respiratory pathogens.

Wash your hands before and after eating food, anytime you're doing food preparation, every time you use the bathroom, when you're caring for a child—like changing diapers—when caring for someone who is sick, or handling animal waste or garbage.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers more guidance on hand-washing and proper hand hygiene.

What is the difference between hand-washing and hand sanitizer? Is one more effective than the other? Should we be doing both?

MBA: Both hand-washing and hand sanitizer are great ways to help prevent the spread of disease.

Hand sanitizer only works on clean hands. If your hands are dirty, like if they have any oil, dirt or blood on them, this will block the hand sanitizer from working.

As long as your hands aren't soiled, using a hand sanitizer that's at least 60% alcohol is just as good as washing your hands, if not better.

Is it possible to use too much hand sanitizer or wash your hands too often?

MBA: You don't want to wash your hands so much that you break down your skin, because broken skin can harbor infectious bacteria. When washing your hands frequently, it is important to prevent breakdown by regularly moisturizing your hands with lotion.

There's no such thing as using too much hand sanitizer. Sometimes people confuse antiseptics, such as alcohol-based hand sanitizer, with antibiotics. Unlike antibiotics, bacteria doesn't become resistant to antiseptics.

Micro-organisms, bacteria and viruses are everywhere. As we go about our daily lives, it's important to understand that our hands are a very common source of contamination and we need to keep them clean.