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The Best Handwashing Technique for Nurses—Plus a Printable Poster

Use these best practices to truly make your environment a safe place to work.

Image - Best Handwashing Technique for Nurses Image via Unsplash.com/Kirsten Marie Ebbesen

A study from Michigan State University estimated that 95 percent of people wash their hands incorrectly, 33 percent of people don’t use soap, and the average handwashing time was only 6 seconds. This is a pretty shocking discovery that should give everyone pause, especially for those who care for sick patients on a regular basis.

Keep in mind, though, that there are a lot of opinions out there about the “right” way to wash your hands. In fact, a surprising amount of them either gloss over or completely skip some critical sanitizing steps in the washing process. So, we decided to go straight to the World Health Organization’s website and find out what they recommended.

The 9-Step Process for Safe Handwashing

Here’s the World Health Organization’s nine-step process for safe handwashing that they encourage everyone, including nurses, to follow:

Step 1: Wet Your Hands
Make sure that you’re using running water of at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit and that you’ve removed any jewelry (e.g., rings or bracelets) before you begin because they can trap germs.

Tip: If you’re worried about losing your rings, wear them on a chain around your neck when you’re at work, or keep them in a ring dish near the sink.

Step 2: Apply Soap
Remove your hands from the water and use a squirt of soap to remove soil and transient microorganisms from your skin.

Step 3: Rub Palms Together With hands still out of the water, rub palm to palm for about five seconds to create a rich lather.

Step 4: Rub Hands Over Each Other
Massage the back of your left hand over your right palm for three seconds to spread the soap. Repeat the above process with your left palm on the back of your right hand.

Step 5: Interlace Fingers
Rub your palms over one another, this time interlacing your fingers. Keeping your fingers interlaced, run the backs of your fingers along the back of the opposing hand. Do this for three seconds.

Step 6: Scrub Thumbs
Rub your right thumb with your left hand, clasping it tightly while rotating for three seconds. Repeat the above with your left thumb.

Step 7: Rub Fingertips Against Palms
Using the fingers of your right hand, rub your left palm in a circling motion for three seconds, going both clockwise and counterclockwise. Repeat the above process with your left fingers and right palm.

Step 8: Rinse
Once you’ve been cleaning for 20-30 seconds, rinse the soap off your hands until the water runs clear and you don’t see suds. When you’re finished, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet. Because you’ve touched it with dirty hands, there’s a good chance that it’s harboring the bacteria and germs you just washed off.

Step 9: Dry Dry your hands with paper towels or a hand dryer rather a cloth towel, which collects bacteria. Also be sure not to wipe your hands on your scrubs.

When Should You Wash Your Hands vs. Use an Alcohol-Based Hand Rub?

We talked to several experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who recommend two methods to routinely clean your hands: Handwashing with soap and water, or hand antisepsis using an alcohol-based hand rub. Hand antisepsis is preferred in most clinical situations; however, there are times when washing your hands is a much better option. For example, you should always wash your hands:

  • When hands are visibly soiled;

  • After using the restroom;

  • Before eating;

  • After caring for a patient with an acute diarrheal illness; and,

  • After touching surfaces or equipment used in the care of a patient with an acute diarrheal illness.

However, you should opt for using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer:

  • When hands are not visibly soiled;

  • Before having contact with a patient;

  • Before putting on gloves;

  • Before putting on gloves to insert a sterile device (e.g. urinary, intravenous catheters);

  • During care when moving from a contaminated body site to a clean body site;

  • After contact with the patient;

  • After contact with surfaces or equipment in the patient environment; and,

  • After removing gloves.

To learn more about the differences between the two approaches, check out our article, “Hand Hygiene 101: A Handy Guide for Nurses.”

How to Keep Your Clean Hands From Drying Out

With so much handwashing going on, you might see your hands get dry and cracked more often. Here are a few ways to keep them soft and conditioned:

  • Moisturize your hands with lotion or balm (but if you’re at work, only with those products provided by your facility—NEVER use products from home);

  • Use paper towels instead of hot air dryers;

  • Exfoliate your hands with a sugar and oil olive scrub one to four times a week;

  • Apply pure aloe every night; and,

  • Use a humidifier when you’re at home.

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