What You Need to Know About Handwashing

Francina Singh, RN, BScN, MPH, CIC, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in public health and a certification in Infection Control, and Director of Healthcare Epidemiology, talks about why handwashing is so important, especially in a hospital environment.

Why is handwashing so important?

It is actually the single most effective way to prevent the transmission of infections. In day-to-day life, it can help stop the spread of bacteria and viruses from person to person, including the flu. In hospitals, it is a vital, even lifesaving patient safety measure that we take very seriously. Visitors to Stony Brook may notice the hand sanitizers mounted outside of each patient room, as well as in strategic places throughout the Hospital. They are there for everyone to use—visitors, staff, doctors, or anyone who has any patient contact. Because patients in hospitals may have a compromised ability to fight infections, some of whom may be severely ill, we go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the spread of infection.

What are hospitals like Stony Brook doing to promote hand hygiene awareness?

hand sanitizers are just a small part of our efforts. We also have a sophisticated and extensive hand hygiene program in place. We offer hand hygiene training to everyone who works at the Hospital—no matter what the job—and make hand hygiene an integral part of every new employee’s orientation. We’ve held workshops, invited outside consultants, and have created a series of communication materials on how and when to wash hands, and wash them properly. But perhaps the most proactive and important program we’ve initiated is “Patient Safety First.” Every Friday, members of Stony Brook’s leadership team visit different areas of the Hospital to identify areas of improvement and monitor individual compliance with hand hygiene.

What can people learn from hospital workers about hand hygiene?

That it is important to wash your hands often. A good rule of thumb is to wash your hands every time you touch something that doesn’t belong to you—keyboards, pens, door handles, telephones, toys, and so on. It is particularly important to wash your hands before you touch your eyes, nose, and mouth; after you use the bathroom; and before you eat. As for public bathrooms, turn the sink faucet off with a dry towel to prevent the spread of germs. You can also use that same towel to open the door; if there are no towels, tissues can also work. The idea is to create a barrier between you and the dirty surface. It is also important to act responsibly if you are sick. Use common sense about protecting yourself and others. If you have a cold, discard tissues after you use them—don’t put them in your pocket or up your sleeve. Sneeze into your arm, not your hand.

What about hand sanitizers—do they work?

Yes and no. We discourage overuse of them because they can destroy normal flora (microorganisms) on the hand that can help keep you healthy. In many cases, however, when there is no soap and water available, they are the best alternative. At hospitals, for example, we use them in conjunction with soap and water handwashing. Know, however, that they are not an effective substitute for handwashing after using the bathroom. In fact, when it comes right down to it, there really is no substitute for simple soap and water.


Tips on Handwashing
  • Use running water—warm water is preferable.
  • Use enough soap to create a lather.
  • Wash hands thoroughly and with friction, including areas between the fingers around and under the nails.
  • Spend 10 to 15 seconds each time you wash your hands.
  • Dry hands thoroughly—moist hands are an ideal environment for bacteria to take hold.
  • Alcohol-based hand gels or foams can be useful when you have no access to soap and water and when your hands are not visibly dirty but they should NOT be considered a substitute for hand washing.

For more information, please call (631) 444-4000.

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All health and health-related information contained in this article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature and should not be used as a substitute for a visit with a healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance, and treatment. The information is intended to offer only general information for individuals to discuss with their healthcare provider. It is not intended to constitute a medical diagnosis or treatment or endorsement of any particular test, treatment, procedure, service, etc. Reliance on information provided is at the user's risk. Your healthcare provider should be consulted regarding matters concerning the medical condition, treatment, and needs of you and your family. Stony Brook University/SUNY is an affirmative action, equal opportunity educator and employer.