It May Have Slipped Your Mind, But Today Is Global Handwashing Day

Don't go out looking for greeting cards to send the neighbors in commemoration, but today, Oct. 15, happens to be Global Handwashing Day.

Yes, it's a thing. And while it may seem silly to commemorate a day for something we do by rote and take for granted, it's a very important observance. It's meant as a reminder on the best handwashing techniques in order to reduce the spread of diarrheal and respiratory illness in order to stay healthy.

Sorry for the diarrheal reference, but this is serious stuff. I'm talking to you, Patch reader who chuckled at the lead sentence to this story.

Proper hand-washing technique is key to avoiding illness, especially when the action is most needed (I hope you understand what's meant here, and we think that you do). Done at the proper times, effective hand washing potentially reduces diarrhea illnesses (again, sorry, but it has to be said) by a third and respiratory illnesses by almost a fifth, according to numerous research studies, according to Food Safety News.

While many of these illnesses are more focused among residents living in underdeveloped countries, there are untold cases of norovirus and other foodborne illnesses -- not to mention colds and flu -- in the U.S. that could be avoided each day if more people only practiced enhanced hand hygiene, the publication noted.

So Global Handwashing Day is a method of supporting a global and local culture of handwashing with soap, while spotlighting the state of handwashing in every country to raise awareness about the benefits of handwashing with soap, officials said.

The day has been observed since 2008 on this day worldwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. To that end, the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap founded Global Handwashing Day and encourages school children, teachers and families to get involved.

Across the world, people clean their hands with water but sans soap because of its scarcity in some countries. Even when soap is accessible, in some countries it's reserved for laundry and bathing rather than hand washing, according to the CDC.

Yet even amid our soap bounty (it's available everywhere, as you know), effective hand washing continues to be a problem. Worse: With some people, it's not the reflexive action it should be. You know people like this, and those people, well, you know why you are.

Again, this is serious stuff. According to the CDC, effective hand washing literally saves lives. To buttress this claim, the CDC offers some grim statistics

  • Millions of children5 under the age of five years die from diarrheal diseases and pneumonia, the top two killers of young children around the world;
  • Handwashing is not only simple and inexpensive, but also can dramatically cut the number of young children who get sick, if hands are washed with soap;
  • Handwashing with soap could prevent about 1 out of every 3 episodes of diarrheal illnesses4 and almost one out of six episodes of respiratory infection like pneumonia.

To celebrate the day, the CDC offers some activities for people and communities worldwide:

The CDC notes that effective hand washing involves five key steps:

Step 1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.

Why must we do this? Because hands could become re-contaminated if placed in a basin of standing water that has been contaminated through previous use. This is why clean running water should be used instead. A word of caution: Officials note that washing with non-potable water when necessary may still improve health. Some think it best to use hot water (some of us to the point of scalding) to ensure the greatest protection, but the temperature of the water does not appear to affect the removal of microbes, according to health officials. Moreover, warmer water could result in skin irritation and is more environmentally costly.

Turning off the faucet after wetting the hands ends up being a tw0-fer, saving precious water in the process as well, and there's little data proving whether significant germ levels are transferred between hands and the faucet.

Step 2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. And don't forget to lather up those typically neglected areas: the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

Why must one be so thorough? Because lathering and scrubbing the hands creates friction, helping to lift dirt, grease, and microbes from the skin. Sorry to break this to you, germophobes, but microbes are present on all surfaces of the hand, more so under the nails in particularly high concentration. This means the entire hand needs to scrubbed.

Step 3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Yes, we live in a world of instant gratification, but this is key. To calculate the right time, you can sing the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice, as this is roughly the 20-second sweet spot. Have you ever just burst out in song in the middle of the day? It's fun and uplifting. Try it while washing the hands with the "Happy Birthday" song and you're getting clean hands at the same time. Win-win.

Why the interminable (to some) 20 seconds? Because determining the optimal length of time for handwashing, while not rocket science, is difficult. Few studies detailing the health impacts of altering handwashing times have been done. In such studies that do exist, nearly all have measured reductions in overall numbers of microbes. Solely reducing numbers of microbes on hands is not necessarily linked to better health, but, as they say, it can't hurt. You ever see surgeons thoroughly washing their hands in a process that seems more religious ritual than task? There's a reason for that. One word: microbes.

Step 4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.

Why must we, after washing and lathering and rubbing our hands together be subjected to rinsing too? Because rinsing the soap away also minimizes skin irritation. Because hands could become re-contaminated if rinsed in a basin of standing water that has been contaminated from prior use. So just do it and quit asking so many questions.

Step 5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Why must we, after such thoroughness, dry the hands? Because germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands. This is why the hands must be dried after washing. However, a concession to the dry deniers out there: The best way to dry hands remains unclear because few studies about hand drying exist, and the results of these studies achieve conflicting conclusions. Another point for the drying truthers: Most of the aforementioned studies focus on concentrations of microbes, not just disease-causing germs, on hands following different hand-drying methods, health officials concede. Still, it's widely accepted knowledge that using a clean towel or air drying hands are the best conclusions to the hand-cleaning process.

In the event no soap and water are available, CDC officials suggest using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Such sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations. A word of caution, though: Sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs and might not remove harmful chemicals. To counter this, some health officials suggest following up hand sanitizer application, with vigorous drying with a paper towel, followed by a second application of hand sanitizer that is allowed to air dry.

So get up, and wash those hands! While today is the designated "Global Handwashing Day," this is something worth celebrating every day of the year. And don't forget to sing the "Happy Birthday" song. Twice!

>>> Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control, logo and infographic via Clean the World

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