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It’s National Handwashing Awareness Week!

Hand-washing was a major breakthrough for healthcare. This is its history, how to do it properly, and what type of soap to use.

If you work in healthcare, you’ll have to wash your hands several times a day, every day. It’s a simple procedure, but an important one. It’s also one that’s easy to forget about. Hand-washing was a major breakthrough in healthcare, and the continued benefits depend on the vigilance of healthcare workers everywhere. This week is National Handwashing Awareness Week. Here’s why we’re celebrating.

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History of hand-washing

Hand-washing saves lives. But it hasn’t always been the norm for healthcare settings. In fact, finally introducing hand-washing to medicine was a major revolution in healthcare.

In the 1840s, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis started gathering data at maternity wards. He noticed a difference in the conditions between the ward staffed by doctors and the one staffed by midwives. That difference was that the doctors often performed autopsies in addition to their other medical duties, and didn’t wash up after working on a cadaver. Instead, they went from patient to patient, carrying germs with them. The midwives, meanwhile, didn’t perform any autopsies, and thus were less likely to come into contact with what Semmelweis called “cadaverous particles.”

Semmelweis recommended physicians wash their hands to prevent the spread of those “particles” throughout the ward. Years later, we know washing one’s hands does indeed take care of a good deal of germs and bacteria. Sadly, Semmelweis’s ideas were not widely adopted in his lifetime. However, he’d be pleased with the state of things today.

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How to wash your hands

Washing your hands might seem basic, but it’s a skill most adults still get wrong — or at least don’t quite get right. Simply running some water over your fingers isn’t going to cut it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a guide to washing your hands, which outlines a process a bit more involved than just briefly touching fingers to water.

Soap and lather is obviously important, but so is length. The CDC notes you should scrub for at least 20 seconds, or about twice as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself. Remember to really scrub. Get the tops of your hands (not just your palms and the undersides of your fingers), pay attention to any dirt that might be in your nails, and be sure to wash your wrists. They come into contact with almost as many things as your hands do.

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What to look for in hand soap

Of course, soap is necessary for good, quality hand-washing. And here’s some good news: Most commercially available soaps will work fairly well. The basic chemical structure of soap is what accounts for its effectiveness, so adding things like nice smells or color isn’t going to make you any cleaner. Neither is antibacterial soap, which the FDA recommended against using in 2016. So when it comes to hand-washing, use ordinary soap, but use it well. Most of the effectiveness of this revolutionary practice comes from your own good habits and diligence.

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It’s National Handwashing Awareness Week!