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Yes! Handwashing with soap is substantially more effective at cleaning your hands than handwashing with water alone. Rinsing hands with water is preferable to not handwashing at all, but handwashing with soap is more effective in removing dirt and germs from hands.
A study in Bangladesh examined the effectiveness of handwashing with soap and water compared to rinsing hands with only water. The research found that while use of water alone does help reduce the risk of diarrhea, use of soap is substantially more effective.
The two primary times to wash hands are after contact with feces (such as using the toilet or cleaning a child) and before contact with food (preparing food, eating, feeding a child, and so on). Research has shown that these times have the greatest impact on child health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing hands:
Proper handwashing requires soap and running water. A tap is not necessary for handwashing: running water can also be achieved by pouring water from a basin or other container, or constructing a Tippy Tap—handwashing stations composed of cans or plastic bottles that release just enough soap and water each time they are tipped.
To wash properly, follow these steps:
An easy way to gauge 20 seconds is to use a familiar song that lasts for 20 seconds. Singing the “Happy Birthday” song, or another some of similar length, takes about 10 seconds, so try singing it twice while you wash your hands. Posters and other promotional resources demonstrating proper handwashing can be found here.
UNICEF, CDC, and other experts endorse the 20-second handwashing recommendation. The WHO recommends 40-60 seconds, but this encompasses the entire handwashing process from wetting hands and applying soap until hands are fully dried, whereas the 20-second recommendation focuses only on the process of scrubbing hands with soap.
Germs that can cause diseases lodge in dirt, grease, and the natural oils on hands. Water alone does not dislodge them, but soap helps break down germ-carrying oils. Soap also facilitates rubbing and friction which can remove germs from the hands, and so that germs can be rinsed away with water. Using soap also adds to the time spent washing and ensures a more effective wash. With proper use, all soaps are equally effective at removing germs that cause disease. The clean smell and feeling that soap creates are also incentives for its use.
Water for handwashing does not have to be as clean as drinking water, but it should not be contaminated with fecal bacteria. Water that has been used for other purposes, such as cleaning dishes, can be reused for handwashing. Even when clean water is not available, handwashing can still be effective: research has found that washing hands with soap even using likely very contaminated water from the municipal water supply still delivered health benefits including diarrhea reduction.
Any water temperature is effective for handwashing with soap. U.S. Food & Drug Administration and CDC guidelines recommend a warm water temperature—particularly in food preparation settings—to maximize the lathering effect of soap to aid the removal of soil and grease containing harmful microbes when handwashing. However, recent research indicates that water temperature does not make a significant difference in removing enteric infection-causing microbes (such as E. coli).
With proper use, all soaps are equally effective at removing the germs that cause diarrheal disease and respiratory infections.
Access to soap is not universal. Where soap is available, particularly in poorer households, it may not be designated for handwashing due to its perception as a precious commodity. Instead, soap may be used for laundry, bathing, and washing dishes. Where soap is not available or difficult to obtain for handwashing, soapy water is an effective low-cost alternative. Otherwise, handwashing with other cleansing agents like ash can help remove bacteria from hands. Even washing hands with water alone can help reduce diarrhea, though using soap delivers substantially greater health impact.
Waterless hand cleansers, such as those containing alcohol or alternative agents, may be useful, particularly in healthcare settings and for times where access to soap and water is challenging, for example during emergencies. Yet, the feasibility and scalability of waterless options for hand cleansing to improve child health in the general population are currently limited due to a lack of robust supply chains and the cost of the product. If hands are visibly soiled, handwashing with soap should always be used, as sanitizers do not remove dirt.
Evidence indicates that wiping or drying hands with a towel or piece of cloth can remove more germs not eliminated through handwashing. Air-drying does not have this benefit.
Handwashing station designs vary depending on the context, but they should always have clean water and soap. In schools, for example, construction of a group handwashing station can ensure that students are able to wash their hands prior to eating their mid-day meal.
The Global Handwashing Partnership has many resources that can be useful for those looking to construct handwashing stations. Some recommended tools are:
Do you have an innovative handwashing station design? Share it with us!
Handwashing stations should be located so they are convenient to use at the critical times, such as before handling food or after using the toilet. If soap and water for handwashing are unavailable, or far from the toilet, food preparation area, or food consumption area, this can reduce the likelihood of handwashing. The location of a handwashing station should serve as a reminder or ‘cue to action’ when people leave the latrine or are about to cook or eat.
Sustaining handwashing is very important, and handwashing must be practiced consistently to be effective. This requires first that people have the tools necessary to wash their hands (soap and water) and that they are reminded or persuaded to do so on a regular basis. Read our Project Implementation page to learn more about handwashing behavior change.
Unfortunately, knowledge does not automatically translate into consistent action. Globally, people wash their hands only 19% of the time after using the toilet or changing a child’s diaper. In some parts of the world, people wash their hands with soap at just one or two percent of critical times. People need to be motivated to change their handwashing behavior, and knowledge is only one component that may nudge someone toward that new behavior. Our Project Implementation page covers drivers for handwashing behavior, and ways beyond knowledge to encourage handwashing.
Practitioners, researchers, and companies are learning about what works—and what doesn’t—in changing private, personal behaviors and habits. What does not work is top-down, technology-led solutions or campaigns that hinge primarily on health education messages. What is more effective is using approaches that build on the lessons of social marketing, and respond to motivating factors that drive people to wash their hands. This approach emphasizes the role of research and studies the interests, attributes, needs, opportunities, and motivations of different people within communities. Read more on our Project Implementation page.
Handwashing with soap helps prevent gastrointestinal diseases like diarrhea; respiratory diseases like pneumonia and influenza; and other infections such as Ebola and healthcare-associated infections. Handwashing with soap may help prevent soil-transmitted helminth infections, which infect over 1.5 billion people. Further information about the significant role that handwashing plays in promoting health can be found on the About Handwashing page.
In addition to its impact on health, handwashing also benefits nutrition, education, equity, and the economic development of countries. Read about these benefits on our Why Handwashing page.
No. Globally, less than a fifth of people currently wash their hands properly at critical times. Even in places where handwashing is a comparatively entrenched practice and both soap and water are plentiful, people often fail to wash their hands with soap at critical times.
More than a million children die each year due to diarrhea, but handwashing with soap could prevent two-thirds of those deaths. Without handwashing facilities in schools, children are more susceptible to illness, and less able to learn and grow. Presently, children lose 443 million school days each year because of water-related illnesses, of which 272 million are lost due to diarrhea alone.
Educators have an important role to play in ensuring handwashing in the school setting and helping students establish lasting hygiene habits. According to the SuperAmma campaign, school-based handwashing programs and interventions can result in up to a 54% reduction in absenteeism. Thus, appropriate hygiene in schools include working handwashing stations, supplied with soap in or near sanitation facilities, where food is prepared or consumed, and in the school’s medical or health facility.
Access to improved WASH can help prevent the spread of healthcare-associated infections (HCAI) and allows healthcare staff to offer high-quality services to patients. However, lack of access to an improved water source and availability of soap at many healthcare facilities and gaps hand hygiene and infection prevention & control undercut the ability for healthcare staff to offer safe services and for patients to protect themselves from acquiring infections. For healthcare providers, patients, and visitors to be able to practice good hand hygiene in health settings, water and soap must be accessible. However, a recent report on the availability of WASH in 66,000 healthcare facilities in 54 countries found that 35% did not have soap and water for handwashing. Yearly, an estimated 15% of patients develop one or more infections during a hospital stay. You can find resources from the GHP on the importance of hand hygiene in healthcare facilities here.
Failing to meet the hygiene needs of workers and adhere to sanitary workplace conditions can have serious financial implications. Global economic losses due to poor WASH are estimated to be $260 billion annually. Investing in toilets with handwashing stations in the workplace provides numerous benefits that far outweigh costs and can help keep employees in good health, which in turn strengthens productivity, revenue, and ultimately economies. At the most basic level, hygiene facilities should be part of working conditions for every company, for every worker, no matter the industry or location. Read about the benefits of WASH in the workplace here.
In emergency settings, handwashing is critical to preventing the spread of disease and has high potential to reduce the health impact of disasters. UNICEF estimates that diarrhea is responsible for 25-40% of child deaths in emergencies. Handwashing with soap must be a key consideration in emergency planning, response, and recovery programs.
Ensuring proper handwashing with soap in emergency settings can also protect the progress made before an emergency. Handwashing infrastructure and behavioral programs in emergencies often require different approaches compared to non-emergency contexts. The pace, scale, and temporality of emergency settings may render some standard approaches ineffective or unfeasible.
The response to the 2013-16 Ebola crisis is one example in which innovative hand hygiene strategies—including safeguarding hygiene infrastructure, handwashing behavior change programming, strict enforcement of infection prevention and control practices and compliance among healthcare workers, community hygiene education and resource mobilization, and a concerted strategy between government sectors at all levels and with the global community—were fundamental in the response to contain the public health crisis. The Hygiene in Emergencies key topic page summarizes key resources related to handwashing in emergency settings. For research articles, program evaluations, or non-emergency guidance, visit our resources page.
Despite the many benefits associated with this simple behavior, it is seldom properly practiced. This is why it is essential that we join together to promote handwashing with soap. Without effective handwashing behavior change programming and access to hygiene facilities in schools, health facilities, in the workplace, and in humanitarian settings will likely not be met. Promoting handwashing through project implementation, advocacy, and integrated programming between sectors (for instance WASH, healthcare, nutrition, and education) are critical to achieving success in the SDGs, particularly Target 6.2. Governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, religious groups, healthcare facilities, and others can all play an influential role in handwashing promotion through project implementation, integration, and advocacy.
Hygiene facilities should be appropriate for all people, including those living with disabilities and who commonly face barriers to use. Consider the needs of all individuals who could benefit from hygiene promotion and access to handwashing stations, from installing height- and distance-appropriate facilities in close proximity to toilets to ensuring an adequate number handwashing stations per patient beds in healthcare facilities. Visit the Promote Handwashing page to learn about the different ways you can promote handwashing in your community and beyond.
Founded by the Global Handwashing Partnership, Global Handwashing Day is an annual global advocacy day dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding about the importance of handwashing with soap as an easy, effective, and affordable way to prevent diseases. It is an opportunity to design, test, and replicate creative ways to encourage people to wash their hands with soap at critical times.
Global Handwashing Day is designed to:
To learn more about Global Handwashing Day, including how you can celebrate, please visit www.globalhandwashingday.org.
Global Handwashing Day is celebrated annually on October 15. This is an excellent opportunity to spread the word about the importance of handwashing with soap, which should be practiced and promoted throughout the year.
The theme for Global Handwashing Day changes each year; the 2017 theme was “Our hands, our future”! You can learn more about the 2017 theme here and how it had an impact on Global Handwashing Day celebrations.
The Global Handwashing Day website also provides many resources, such as posters. Celebration ideas for various audiences can be found in Annex 1 of the 2017 Planner’s Guide. Activity suggestions are available in Annex 2. The Social Media Toolkit provides suggestions and sample messages for planners to create a global buzz about handwashing, inspire increased promotion and practice of handwashing globally, and promote their celebration campaign and handwashing materials. The 2017 Planner’s Guide and Social Media Toolkit are also available in French & Spanish.
Global Handwashing Day activities from last year may be found on the interactive Global Handwashing Day map. Other activity examples are available in the activity list in Annex 2 of the Planner’s Guide.
Yes! You can let the Global Handwashing Partnership know about activities you are planning by completing this form. Most celebrants usually plan their activities between July and October. We will then add your event to our index allowing us to know what events are planned globally. This can also help us connect you with potential partners. After your event, please upload pictures and a report or description of your campaign to the interactive Global Handwashing Day website.
One way to find Global Handwashing Day activities near you is to reach out to similar organizations. This can provide an opportunity to collaborate with like-minded organizations. You can also contact the Global Handwashing Partnership to see if others in your region have registered an event.
While the Global Handwashing Partnership is unable to provide funding for specific Global Handwashing Day events due to overwhelming global demand, there are many ways to secure funding for Global Handwashing Day activities or materials. Collaborating with other organizations is one way to reduce the cost of events.
Yes! Digital campaigns allow participants to take part regardless of location. Social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) and web-based media (online news journals and organizations’ websites) are a great way to spread the word, increase reach, and tell others about the importance of handwashing. Visit the Virtual Campaign page for the latest digital Global Handwashing Day events, and contact us to have your campaign featured.
If all Global Handwashing Day celebrants advocate for handwashing with soap every day, and not just on October 15, we can make significant progress to increase increasing hygiene programs, investment, and behavior. Though Global Handwashing Day is a once-a-year opportunity to make a big splash, the important work of hygiene promotion shouldn’t end after October 15. Visit the Beyond Global Handwashing Day page for ideas for how to continue the momentum after Global Handwashing Day.
If you would like to receive regular updates from the Global Handwashing Partnership, please subscribe to our mailing list or follow us online.
© 2017 The Global Handwashing Partnership (GHP).