Last updated: 04.10.23

Why Is Washing Your Hands Important?

While we are unable to see, hear or smell bacteria, they can survive on our hands and are responsible for approximately 80% of infectious diseases. The most effective way to prevent the spread of illnesses worldwide is by washing your hands regularly, especially if you work in healthcare or in a food preparation environment.

Washing your hands is something that everyone should be doing multiple times a day, and yet many people are unaware of the official hand washing procedures that have been developed to ensure the minimal spread of germs. In this article, we take a look at some of the common ways bacteria is passed on through poor hygiene and the importance of washing your hands regularly, especially when dealing with food regularly.

Why Washing Your Hands Is So Important

Bacteria is the biggest threat to food safety and usually develops from poor hygiene in the kitchen. In fact, germs can survive on any surface you touch for days at a time, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Every single year, thousands of people throughout the UK suffer from food-related illnesses that could usually have been avoided if hygiene was improved. This does include common illnesses such as sickness, nausea and diarrhoea, but food poisoning can also lead to more serious conditions.

Historically, controlling the spread of harmful bacteria has proved to be problematic because of the many stages food goes through, from processing to preparation, cooking and storage. Nevertheless, the majority of foodborne illnesses are a direct result of hand cross-contamination.

With food being produced, processed and packaged at a higher volume than ever before, there is a real risk of foodborne bacteria being spread among a larger number of people. When it comes to food hygiene in the kitchen, food handlers and professionals must understand the importance of washing their hands regularly.

Another of the benefits of hand washing and the reason why it’s important for food preparation is that it’s an essential part of adhering to health and safety standards. If staff fail to properly wash their hands and customers become ill as a result, a business could face legal action as well as having its reputation ruined. Both of these can present a significant financial strain, so handwashing must be made an integral part of good hygiene practices at work.

When Should You Wash Your Hands?

Official guidance from the CDC states that you should wash your hands at the following times:

  • Before, during and after preparing food
  • After using the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • After handling rubbish or waste
  • Before and after eating food
  • After touching an animal, an animal’s food, or an animal’s waste
  • After changing a nappy or helping a child use the bathroom
  • Before and after caring for someone with a stomach bug

If your role involves preparing and/or handling food, it’s especially important to follow the above advice and make sure that you’re following hand washing guidelines to prevent the spread of bacteria.

High-risk areas that involve the preparation of food require the highest level of compliance from food professionals so that infectious diseases do not spread. The government states that if food handlers think another member of staff has not washed their hands, they must make sure they wash them straight away and emphasise how important it is to wash their hands when working with food.

To encourage thorough and effective hand washing, employers should make sure hand basins are convenient and have plenty of soap and disposable towels. They should also display posters or signs with reminders about hand washing and an overview of the key hand washing steps.

How Long Should You Spend Washing Your Hands?

Advice from the NHS recommends that you wash your hands for around 40 seconds. This is about the same time it takes to sing ‘happy birthday’ twice in your head, or you can hum it out loud. 

It’s important to spend the right amount of time washing your hands because this ensures that you’ve properly cleaned every part of your hands and scrubbed them for enough time that any germs will hopefully have been removed. Rushing to wash your hands puts you at risk of leaving some bacteria on your skin, which could then be transmitted to a surface, person or food.

How Many Steps Are There to Washing Your Hands?

Proper hand hygiene requires a proper protocol, appropriate hand washing or cleansing agent, and compliance, which involves execution at frequent enough intervals to prevent infection

Food safety experts will often advise hand-washing procedures should be implemented and strictly monitored regularly. But the best hand hygiene requires much more than a quick rinse under some cold water. 

The number of steps in the proper hand washing method varies depending on the guidance you read. Generally, you can break down the process of how to properly wash your hands into five stages.

Wet Your Hands

The first step of any effective hand washing technique is to wet your hands first. This should rinse off any significant visible substances on your skin and creates the right environment to properly lather up soap.

Apply Soap

The next stage of washing your hands is to apply a generous amount of soap. If you’re using an automatic soap dispenser, it will supply the right amount in a single go. If you’re pumping out the soap from a dispenser yourself, you may need 2-3 pumps.

Clean Every Part of Your Hands

This stage of effective hand washing is probably the most important, and is sometimes broken down into individual steps to describe all the areas of your hands that need cleaning.

To begin with, rub your palms together to lather the soap and clean every part of the inside of your hands. Then use one hand to wash the back of the other, placing your fingers between one another to clean the spaces in between them. Repeat this process for both hands.

Then, rub your palms together again and interlace your fingers, making sure you’ve cleaned between them again.

Next, grip your fingers together so the backs of your fingers are against the palms of your other hand, like you’re holding hands with yourself. Scrub back and forth to clean the backs of your fingers against your palms.

Clean your thumbs by grasping each thumb in a fist with the other hand and rotating your hand. Finally, rub the tips of your fingers into the palm of the other hand, and repeat on both sides.

Rinse Your Hands

After you’ve used the proper hand washing technique to apply soap to every part of your hand, the next step is to rinse them. You can rub your hands together following the hand washing steps above again to ensure that all the soap residue is removed from your skin.

Dry Your Hands

The final stage in any hand washing guidelines is to thoroughly dry your hands so they’re no longer wet. You can do this with paper towels, a cloth hand towel or an air dryer. 

For more information about how to wash your hands, we also have a video tutorial showing the proper process.

Why Is It Important to Dry Hands After Washing?

Drying your hands is just as vital as the importance of hand washing. Wet hands can pick up or transfer germs much easier, and also have the potential to drip contaminated water on other surfaces, so it’s important not to skip this stage.

Some people choose not to dry their hands to save time, but this should be avoided if you’re working in a food preparation environment. Certain ingredients may also need dry hands to be handled properly, which is another reason to ensure your hands are properly dry after you’ve washed them.

What Is the Best Way to Dry Your Hands After Washing Them?

There are a range of different ways that you can dry your hands after washing them, some of which are considered to be more hygienic than others. Paper towels, cloth towels, or air-dryers are all used to dry wet hands, and if you only have the option to use one then should always do so in comparison to leaving your hands damp.

However, some research has shown that using paper towels is the most hygienic way to dry your hands after washing them. Electrical air dryers could potentially blow bacteria back onto your hands after you have washed them, and cloth hand towels may be carrying germs from other people’s hands that are then transferred back to yours.

Disposable paper towels may not be the best choice for the environment, but they present the lowest risk of recontaminating clean hands. If you have the choice, paper towels are the best option.


Why is washing your hands important before handling food?

Washing your hands before handling food is incredibly important because it prevents the spread of harmful bacteria between people and surfaces. If you’ve touched food with hands that have bacteria on them, the food will likely pick up this bacteria, which will then be consumed by the person eating the food. Not all bacteria are bad, but harmful bacteria can lead to a range of health problems that can quickly spread through groups of people and should be avoided where possible.

Washing your hands is the best way to ensure that you’ve minimised the risk of cross-contamination when handling food. While disposable gloves are a great way to reduce the spread of bacteria, they should never be used as an alternative to effective handwashing. 

When using disposable gloves, you should still wash your hands before putting them on and after you have taken them off. You should change them often - especially when handling raw foods - and throw them away after you have used them and if they are damaged.

Which part of the hands is most neglected when washing?

Studies have found that the part of the hand that is most neglected whilst handwashing is the fingertips. It’s important to remember to wash the tips of your fingers and fingernails when following hand washing procedures, as the tips of your fingers are often the first to touch other surfaces and may have the most bacteria on them.

What temperature should the water be when washing your hands?

There’s no particular temperature that water needs to be when washing your hands, as the bacterial removal happens because of the soap you use, not the temperature of the water. Warm water may feel more pleasant, but water that is too hot may cause skin irritation and can also have more of an environmental impact, which you may want to bear in mind.


The importance of hand washing cannot be underestimated; it keeps everyone safe, ensures compliance with health and safety guidance, and ensures that high levels of hygiene are maintained across a range of businesses and institutions. Understanding how to properly wash your hands might seem trivial, but it’s a key part of keeping yourself and the people that you interact with at work and at home safe. 

In order to reduce contamination, those working and handling and working with food must be aware of their personal hygiene and the importance of hand washing. Employers can ensure that their staff are aware of this by effectively training them with available e-learning courses.

Our ‘Level 1 Food Safety and Hygiene’ covers all the key topics that employees working in a food preparation environment need to know, and is a great introductory training course that can be completed anywhere.