You may think that hand washing is as simple as turning on a tap and working up a lather. But when it comes to washing your hands well enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or avoid a bout of food poisoning, there are a few facts you need to take into account.
Myth: Everyone washes their hands before cooking
Fact: Research proves that not every person who touches food has washed their hands
Don’t assume that your dinner party host has washed their hands before they’ve cooked you that amazing three-course meal.
According to a recent national survey commissioned for Food Safety Information Council this year, over 40 per cent of Australians don’t always wash hands before touching food. 2020 marked a five per cent fall in the number of respondents who said they always washed their hands before handling ingredients.
The Omnipoll research also showed that almost one-in-five Australians do not wash their hands after going to the toilet.
“Hand washing is the best way to remove any viruses or bacteria from your hands that spreads food poisoning,” says Food Safety Information Council’s communication director, Lydia Buchtmann.
“But we’re also in the middle of a pandemic and hand washing is one of the key ways of preventing the spread of Covid-19. Yet some people are still not doing it.”
Myth: Washing your hands before you cook does nothing to stop the spread of Covid-19
Fact: Hand washing before cooking is always recommended
Germs from unwashed hands can transfer onto food and other kitchen objects. Existing in the right temperature and conditions, bacteria can multiply and cause serious illnesses.
“While you can’t catch COVID from eating food, if you are handling food and cooking, you will most likely touch utensils and surfaces,” Buchtmann tells SBS.
“If there are bacteria on your hands because you haven’t washed them, then you can still share viruses and spread bacteria around by touching objects and surfaces.”
So to reduce your risk of developing diarrhoea, food poisoning, COVID and other respiratory infections, it’s always best to wash your hands before eating or cooking.
“Hand washing is the best way to remove any viruses or bacteria from your hands that spreads food poisoning.”
Myth: I’ve washed my hands with soap so they’re now germ-free
Fact: You still need to dry your hands
Washing your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, breaks down any germs that are on your hands, while the water will wash the germs away. But there’s one more step to ensure the germs are gone: drying.
“Drying your hands with paper towel after washing them is really important. Because your hands can pick up germs again while they are wet.
“If you wash your hands a lot, be aware that used hand towels can get very damp [and carry bacteria]. So you need to use clean kitchen or paper towels to dry your hands efficiently and reduce the spread of bacteria.”
World Health Organisation recommends washing hands and then drying them with paper towel or a warm air dryer to prevent the spread of Covid.
Myth: Antibacterial soap is better than regular soap
Fact: Regular soap is just as powerful
Despite some marketing claims, antibacterial soap or hand wash is not more effective than regular soap in removing germs.
The Australian Department of Health recommends that people wash their hands with water and soap but does not advise the health benefits of antimicrobial or non-antimicrobial over each other.
A study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection in 2016 pitted the cleaning effects of plain soap against anti-bacterial soap featuring the chemical called triclosan. It showed that antibacterial soaps do not lead “to a meaningful reduction in bacterial levels during use”.
Triclosan has since been banned in hand washes throughout the USA and the European Union because of fears it may actually increase the risk of antibacterial resistance and affect hormone levels in animals.
“A study by University College London recommends that people should wash their hands six to 10 times a day to reduce their risk of catching viral infections such as colds, influenza and COVID-19."
Myth: I’ve washed my hands a few times today – that’s enough
Fact: You haven’t reached the hand washing quota
“A study by University College London recommends that people should wash their hands six to 10 times a day to reduce their risk of catching viral infections such as colds, influenza and COVID-19,” Buchtmann says.
Given that frequency of hand washing may be just as important as how you wash your hands, Buchtmann recommends that people reach their daily quota by washing their hands:
- after touching raw meat, fish, shell eggs or poultry
- after using the toilet, attending to children’s (or others) toileting and changing nappies
- after blowing your nose
- after touching a pet
- after gardening
- after returning home