Personal hygiene refers to how you care for your body. It mainly involves staying clean through things like bathing, washing your hands and wearing clean clothes, which not only keeps you healthy but also the people around you that you come into contact with.
If you work in a kitchen environment then safe and hygienic working practices will be a key part of your job, particularly if you handle food. Your personal hygiene plays a part in this, so it’s important to understand what individual steps you need to take to reduce the risk of contamination and keep the customers who consume the food you handle safe.
In this article, we explain how to maximise hygiene when handling food by sharing twelve important personal hygiene rules.
Personal hygiene is very important in kitchen environments, whether these are domestic or professional. Without maintaining personal cleanliness and following good kitchen hygiene and safety practices, the chances of cross-contamination are very likely. This can lead to cases of food poisoning or other medical issues, both of which have the potential to cause quite serious harm.
If you work in a kitchen handling and serving food, personal hygiene is important as it is a mandatory part of ensuring high standards of cleanliness in the kitchen area. Failure to follow the guidance below and neglect your personal hygiene could not only put your job at risk but also the business you work for, as failing to follow certain health and safety guidelines is against the law.
Many aspects of good personal hygiene are things that we’ve all been brought up knowing how to do, which makes them easy to remember and follow. There are also aspects of personal hygiene that are more specific to working in a food handling environment, and learning these is very important if you’re going to be preparing and serving food products as part of your job.
Below are 12 key things to remember about personal hygiene when handling food.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice, and an essential element of personal cleanliness, is washing your hands with antibacterial soap and warm water. This is the only way to ensure that contaminants are removed from your hands and stops cross-contamination from occurring between food products, utensils and surfaces, protecting you and the people eating the food you’ve handled.
You should wash your hands:
Hands need to be washed with soap and water for at least twenty seconds to ensure that they are clean. You should scrub the front and back of your hands, in between your fingers and down to your wrists to ensure that you don’t miss any potential contaminants.
After washing your hands, properly drying them is also an important part of personal hygiene rules. Whilst clean and wet hands don’t pose much of a health risk if they come into contact with food, wet hands might drop water on the floor of a kitchen and cause a slip hazard, or might make handling utensils like knives dangerous.
Hands need to be thoroughly dried using a clean material such as a towel or cloth, or can be dried with disposable paper towels. You can also use a hand drier to properly dry your hands, which is the most hygienic option and doesn't produce any waste.
Contaminants are most likely to transfer from your hands to the food you’re handling, but can also transfer from your clothes. Wearing protective clothing like an apron, hat, hair net or gloves in the kitchen reduces this risk, and therefore is a key piece of personal hygiene advice to follow.
In order to reduce the risk of cross-contamination, make sure that the clothes you’re wearing are clean. New, clean aprons and head coverings should be worn every day, and if an apron gets dirty it should be swapped for a clean one immediately.
If you’re leaving the kitchen during a shift, you should remove your apron and put it back on once you reenter, to avoid picking up any contaminants from outside.
You should also avoid coming into a kitchen wearing excessively dirty clothing, as even wearing clean protective gear over the top might not totally reduce the health risk this poses.
Long hair is a health and safety risk when handling food because it can get mixed up in ingredients and may be accidentally consumed by whoever eats the final food product. When handling food, long hair needs to be securely tied back so that it’s not falling in the food, and hairnets may also need to be worn in some kitchen environments.
If you have a long beard, this may also need to be covered with a net for the same reasons.
Contaminants have the potential to reside underneath your fingernails and then contaminate the food products you handle. Therefore, fingernails need to be kept clean through regular hand washing, but also should be kept short so that there’s less of a chance that any dirt will get underneath them.
Having clean nails also means avoiding wearing nail polish. This presents a contamination risk as the polish might chip and come off in the food you’re handling, so most kitchens don’t allow employees to paint their nails for work.
Wearing jewellery also presents a contamination risk, this time of physical cross-contamination, as the items you’re wearing might drop into the food you’re handling and cause a choking or health hazard to the consumer. Therefore, you’re recommended not to wear any jewellery whilst in a food handling environment to remove the likelihood of this risk.
Jewellery might also be dirty or create places on your hands in particular that you can’t properly clean. This might lead to germs staying on your hands and then contaminating the food you handle, which is another reason why removing your jewellery is the best practice when handling food.
Strong fragrances have the potential to taint food products, particularly ones that have a high fat content. To avoid any lingering chemical particles from perfume or cologne contaminating food, or just causing it to smell like an artificial fragrance, avoid wearing any kind of strong scent whilst working in a kitchen.
If you have wounds on your hands or cut yourself whilst in the kitchen, an essential way to practice good hygiene is to ensure that these are covered up. Open wounds present an obvious biological contamination risk, but even scabs or new scars can still harbour germs that might get into the food you’re handling, so you must wear plasters or dressings over these to keep them safely covered.
Disposable gloves should also be worn over any wounds on your hands, as this prevents the dressings from falling off into the product you’re handling. These gloves should be changed regularly to avoid cross-contamination, so make sure you put on a new pair when changing tasks or after touching something potentially contaminated.
The scent and smoke produced by smoking cigarettes can contaminate your hands and clothes, which in turn has the potential to contaminate the food you handle afterwards. A key part of having good personal hygiene is ensuring that you remove any protective clothing that you’re wearing before leaving the kitchen to go and smoke, and then thoroughly washing your hands afterwards before touching any ingredients.
Smoking indoors is illegal, but you should make sure you always stick to designated smoking areas if smoking at work. These will be a safe distance away from the kitchen and so it will be unlikely that any smoke will get into the food preparation area.
An element of good personal hygiene that applies to all areas, not just handling food, is that you should try and avoid touching your eyes, ears, nose and mouth. These parts of your face are places where germs are most likely to collect, and you risk cross-contamination if you are regularly touching your face and then handling food without washing your hands in between.
If you do notice yourself touching your face, try and remember to wash your hands before continuing to handle any food.
Coughing and sneezing are major hazards in a kitchen. Both of these actions can spread germs which lead to biological contamination, potentially infecting anyone that comes into contact with the germs that have been sprayed onto surfaces or into ingredients.
If possible, you should avoid coughing and sneezing in proximity to any food products. If this isn’t possible, practice good personal hygiene by coughing or sneezing into your sleeve or a tissue and then immediately wash your hands to reduce the risk of biological contamination.
Finally, you should avoid working when unwell if you’re in a role that involves handling food. Some illnesses are spread through airborne pathogens which could be transferred to the food you’re handling simply through your breathing, so you should notify your manager if you become ill and try to avoid working if possible.
It’s especially important to avoid handling food if you have any kind of stomach bug, as the germs that cause these tend to be spread through cross-contamination from infected people’s hands and bodies. These kinds of illnesses can be very infectious which could get a food business into serious trouble if many of their customers also become ill, so it’s recommended that you avoid work for 48 hours after any stomach bug symptoms have subsided.
Wearing protective clothing over the top of your clothes whilst handling food reduces the likelihood that contaminants will be transferred from your clothes to the food. This only works when your protective clothing is clean however, which is why it’s important to always wear clean aprons and change out of anything that gets dirty whilst in the kitchen.
Nail polish can chip off your nails, sometimes in minuscule amounts, which has the potential to contaminate the food you’re handling and be ingested, which could lead to medical problems. It’s better to avoid wearing nail polish altogether when you’re handling food, even if you don’t think it will chip, to totally remove the likelihood of this risk.
Washing your hands before handling food is an essential part of food hygiene and personal hygiene. Using soap and water ensures that any physical, chemical or biological contaminants are removed from the skin and massively reduces the likelihood of cross-contamination with whatever you’re preparing.
Many of the key principles of good personal hygiene are very simple, so following the above guidance should be easy to follow once you know what you need to remember. Washing your hands is perhaps the most important element that will protect you and anyone consuming the food produced in the kitchen, whilst things like removing jewellery, covering your hair and avoiding perfume are less obvious but still essential in ensuring hygiene and safety in the kitchen.
If you would like more information on maintaining personal and food hygiene in a professional kitchen environment, take a look at our ‘Level 2 Food Safety & Hygiene’ and ‘Level 3 Food Safety and Hygiene in Catering’ courses.