How to Wash Your Hands: Preventing Food Poisoning Large and Small

Proper personal hygiene is essential to preventing the spread of food borne pathogens such as Norovirus (the virus that causes the “stomach flu” or “48-hour flu”), or bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli, Staph, or Listeria.  In fact, of the 31 “common pathogens”  identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that cause over 40 million cases of food poisoning in the U.S. each year (about one in six people get food poisoning each year), most are amenable to hand-to-food transmission.  According to food safety experts, this is actually a common scenario that plays itself out thousands of times each day in one of two ways.  In the first instance, a food handler may use the bathroom, or touch something contaminated, such as a contaminated food like raw chicken, an item like money or a cell phone, or a contaminated surface like a bathroom counter, and then go on to touch something that comes into contact with the food they are handling without properly washing their hands.  By doing this, the food handler contaminates food that is fed to others and may end up being the cause of a large-scale food poisoning outbreak.

To prevent this very scenario, nearly every health department or agency that governs restaurants and food handling facilities requires that signs be posted in most bathroom and industrial or commercial kitchens warning food handlers to wash their hands thoroughly and often.  In fact, these industrial or commercial kitchens usually have designated hand sinks that have soap and paper towels readily available. These sinks are kept clean, and not used for any other purpose.  Facilities that fail to do so are often “written up” for violating these regulations.

In many other instances, an individual picks up food and eats it using their hands, also without first washing them.   In this instance, the person may only sicken herself, but nonetheless, this is a scenario most would like to avoid!  It’s easy to imagine this scenario playing out daily, such as in the millions of visits to drive-thru restaurants where people get a burger or chicken nuggets and proceed to eat them in their vehicles.  Patrons of fast food rarely (if ever) have hand-washing opportunities in their cars.  In short, after having handled keys, credit cards or cash, and cell phones, people pick up their food with their hands and eat it without even having access to a hand sink.  

The truth is, nearly one in three Americans admits to not practicing hand-washing often, if at all, and only 5% practice proper hand-washing on a regular basis.

Food poisoning, whether it be large or small, can be avoided when proper hand-washing, or when hand-washing is unavailable, through proper hand sanitization. Both methods are set forth below.

Proper Hand Washing – When a Hand Sink is Available

According to the CDC, whose guidelines have been in place well before the COVID-19 pandemic, there are six primary steps t proper hand-washing. These include:

  • (1) wetting the hands with water;
  • (2) applying soap to all surfaces of the hands;
  • (3) rubbing the hands together to help loosen any material, including pathogens, that have adhered to the skin;
  • (4) wash hands top and bottom, between fingers and especially under the nails – this process should be used for at least 20 seconds;
  • (5) thoroughly rinse the soap off the hands, taking with it the potentially harmful pathogens; and
  • (6) drying the hands with clean (preferably disposable) towels or air-drying.

Always use a disposable towel to turn off the water, if necessary, and to turn the handle of any door (if applicable) to the restroom upon leaving.

Proper Hand Sanitation – When no Hand Sink is Available

Food safety experts acknowledge that proper hand-washing is not always an option, or may not be convenient, and have instituted guidelines to use when hand sanitization is an available option.  The CDC prefers hand-washing, noting that it is more effective against norovirus, Cryptosporidium, and Clostridioides difficile, as well as chemicals, pesticides, and metals since they are not “killed” by alcohol.  When hand sanitizers are used, the CDC has very specific recommendations for healthcare settings, requiring “ABHR with 60-95% alcohol” be used by health professionals.  Most laymen, however, have access to over-the-counter hand sanitizers, ad for those the CDC recommends they contain 60% alcohol.

When hand-washing is not readily available, the CDC recommends using an appropriate hand sanitizer before preparing or eating food, and after treating a wound, caring for the sick, using the toilet, handling pets or animals, or disposing of garbage.

Keeping a hand sanitizer in the car will also help the millions of fast-food lovers stay healthy!