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Why is handwashing important to stop the spread of coronavirus?

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The common cold and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (or Covid-19) may be opposite in the impacts they can have on human health, but they belong to the same family. Both are respiratory tract infections caused by coronaviruses.


As a respiratory illness, covid-19 viruses are mostly transmitted via virus-infused droplets from coughs, sneezes, or hands carrying the virus on the skin and touching surfaces or other people.

This is why washing hands continues to be in public health messages in the covid19 crisis, and why we mustn’t forget to do it.

Why we handwash

We spoke to Professor Wahrman, author of The Hand Book: surviving in a germ-filled world, about hand hygiene and covid-19 for our April issue of Safety Management.

She says: “Wash your hands on a regular basis – never touch eyes, or nose or mouth until you have clean hands.” She explains that these are all “direct lines to your body.”

If viruses are on your skin you can wash them away with soap and water

“If [viruses] are on your skin you can wash them away, but in the mucus membranes that’s getting into your body.”

Washing hands when coming into the house from a walk or shop outside, or before eating or handling food is a good rule of thumb (excuse the pun).

The science

On the website science-focus.com, science writer Sara Rigby explains how the coronavirus has a molecular structure that responds well to soap and water. Rather like a tadpole, it has a tail and a head.

She says: “When you have something oily on your hands, running water won’t get rid of it. Add soap to your hands – the hydrophobic tail will cling to the oil, and the hydrophilic head will stick to the water. Now, the oil will come straight off.” So this is what happens when you simply wash your hands.

Get creative with your 20 seconds

Washing hands for 20 seconds is the message from Public Health England to prevent and slow the spread of covid-19.

Professor Wahrman says you can count the 20 seconds or “the time it takes to sing happy birthday twice.”: “Cover the palm and back of hand and between fingers.”

People are also making washing hands a bit of fun, or even a mindfulness exercise. My mother says she watches the water and concentrates on the sensations of handwashing to encourage her mental wellbeing.

You can turn handwashing into your own personal art form. Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance washes his hands while singing Prince’s Raspberry Beret for example. Gloria Gaynoor has even re-released her hit song I will Survive on youtube which she sings while washing her hands!

Our poster this month gets the message out to get handwashing!

Dry them properly

The advice doesn’t end there though. It’s also important to dry your hands in the safest way. For employees who still are using washing facilities in their workplace or public toilets, drying is definitely part of the whole equation.

Professor Wharman recommends using a paper towel, and not a hand drier. She says: “I’m not a fan of fans or air dryers.”

The reason is she says is that research has shown hand driers can spray germs around the room (the germs of the less precise handwasher before you). “Usually I have a few tissues in my pocket just in case. Dispose of the paper towel properly.”

Touch the door knob with a paper towel on your way out – viruses can linger on surfaces for up to 72 hours.

Public Health England handwashing campaign here

British Safety Council posters here

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