Proper handwashing technique is more important than ever, says Virginia Tech food safety expert
Experts stress that washing your hands thoroughly and often is the most crucial first step to preventing the spread of illness, especially for those in food service.
With the coronavirus COVID-19 spreading across the country and illness prevention on everyone’s mind, it’s important to remember that the first line of defense against such infectious diseases is something most people do every day: washing their hands. According to Renee Boyer, a food safety expert with the Department of Food Science & Technology at Virginia Tech, hand washing is the most effective first measure people can take to stay safe, as long as they do it correctly.
COVID-19 is spread the way many other infectious diseases are: through the respiratory droplets produced when someone infected coughs or sneezes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This means the most important thing is to wash your hands regularly throughout the day,” Boyer said. “That’s especially true after activities like using the restroom, after blowing your nose or coughing or after changing diapers.”
According to Boyer, proper handwashing consists of six basic steps: wet your hands, use soap, scrub your hands while counting to 20, rinse them completely, dry them with a paper towel, and use that paper towel to turn off the faucet.
See demonstration video below
“The water temperature really doesn’t matter,” she said. “Studies have shown that whether you use hot water or cold water, either way it’s going to be just as effective. It’s more important that you vigorously rub your hands together with soap for at least 20 seconds to make sure you cover all of the surfaces of your hands. Rub the tips of your fingers along your soapy palms to make sure you get under your fingernails.”
Boyer said that while hand sanitizers of a certain strength can be effective as an added precaution, their use shouldn’t replace regular handwashing.
“Hand sanitizers are great if you have no other option at the time, but they are not as effective as good old-fashioned hand washing,” she said. “If you do use hand sanitizer, you should make sure that the kind you buy has at least 60% alcohol.”
Avoiding recontamination after washing is something many people may not think about, Boyer stressed.
“You should ideally use a single-use product like a paper towel to turn the faucet off so that you’re not recontaminating your hands with the last thing you touched before washing them,” she said. “The recommendation is that you also use the paper towel or maybe your elbow to open the bathroom door as well.”
These tips are even more vital for those in food service, where the potential to infect people is much higher, Boyer cautioned.
“If you’re dealing with food preparation, it’s recommended that you wash them after touching your face or raw meat and before and touching any produce,” she said. “Washing your hands is the single most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of illness, and this is especially true if you’re preparing food for the public.”
Boyer is Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Virginia Tech, where she has spent over 14 years researching food-borne pathogens and spreading food safety awareness throughout Virginia.
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To secure an interview with Renee Boyer, contact Bill Foy in the Virginia Tech Media Relations office at 540-998-0288.
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- Written by Alex Hood