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How Handwashing Protects Against COVID-19

What soap to use, when to wash, and how to do it right.
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Written by
Laura Hagopian, MD, FAWM, FACEP.
2020 - Present, Physician Researcher, Buoy Health
Last updated February 11, 2021

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It’s hard to imagine, but something we’ve been told to do all our life is actually one of the most effective ways to protect yourself against COVID-19. Handwashing—with just soap and water—protects against COVID-19. Soap destroys the outer coating of the coronavirus, so it no longer can infect you.

Bar or liquid?

What you use to wash is up to you. Bar or liquid, it’s your choice. And it doesn't need to be antibacterial. Just make sure you keep the bar in a dry dish.

If you live with others, liquid soap is better for sharing. Do your best to pump with your wrist instead of your hand to dispense. If you run out, experts say body wash is an OK substitute.

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All other states

When to wash hands

  • When you leave a public place—train, store, etc.
  • After preparing food and before eating.
  • After coughing or sneezing—even if you covered with your elbow.
  • After using the bathroom.
  • Every time you come home.
  • When you want to touch your face, though try not to.
  • When you’ve been in the same place as someone who is not feeling well.
  • When you’ve touched shared objects.

Lather up the right way

Most people don’t really know how to wash their hands. It needs to be thorough and long enough. These tips will help you do it effectively.

  • Start with soap—any kind.
  • Wash for at least 20 seconds. Sing “Happy Birthday” twice—don’t rush it— in your head while washing.
  • Wash palms and the back of hands.
  • Wash in between fingers and thumb.
  • Scrub under your fingernails.
  • Rinse well and dry thoroughly. Do not share hand towels. And wash towels regularly.

Hand sanitizers

If you can’t get soap and water, hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol also destroy coronavirus. Just like with soap, make sure you rub the sanitizer all over every part of your hand, including under nails. Still, soap is preferable.

The scientific understanding of COVID-19 as well as guidelines for its prevention and treatment are constantly changing. There may be new information since this article was published. It’s important to check with sources like the CDC for the most up-to-date information.

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2020 - Present, Physician Researcher, Buoy Health

Laura Hagopian, MD, FAWM, FACEP is an Emergency Medicine trained physician with 10+ years of clinical, research, and teaching experience. She has a special interest in using technology to make healthcare more accessible and affordable for everyone. Laura is a part time practicing Emergency Physician at Lowell General Hospital. In addition, she completed both quantitative and qualitative medical research and served as the Principal Investigator for a Women’s Health study. She explored her interest in medical education by developing and giving lectures, creating simulation cases, facilitating e-learning, mentoring pre-medical students, and serving on the Medical Education Committee. Laura holds a degree in Chemistry from Lafayette College and attended the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She completed her residency at Boston Medical Center and fellowships through both the Wilderness Medicine Society and the American College of Emergency Physicians.

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