Coronavirus: Proper handwashing technique more important than ever

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The first line of defense against coronavirus, and really every infectious disease, is the simple act of handwashing.

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.

According to Renee Boyer, a food safety expert with the Department of Food Science & Technology at Virginia Tech, handwashing is the most effective first measure people can take to stay safe, as long as they do it correctly.

“This means the most important thing is to wash your hands regularly throughout the day,” said Boyer, a 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.

Boyer advises paying particular attention to handwashing 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.

View video on proper handwashing

“The water temperature really doesn’t matter,” Boyer 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.”

While hand sanitizers of a certain strength can be effective as an added precaution, their use shouldn’t replace regular handwashing, according to Boyer.

“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,” Boyer said. “If you do use hand sanitizer, you should make sure that the kind you buy has at least 60 percent alcohol.”

Avoiding recontamination after washing is something many people may not think about.

“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,” Boyer 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.

“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,” Boyer 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.”

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