What’s the big deal with handwashing?

March 27, 2020
Written by Kieran McConville

You’ve heard so much about the importance of washing your hands at this stage that it’s probably becoming a little repetitive. For us, that point came a long time ago — we’ve been pushing this message around the world for over 50 years.

In a world of fake news, here’s one fact that we know to be absolutely, undeniably, 100% true: Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and clean water is THE most effective way of preventing the spread of bacteria and disease.

The soap bit is very important, because soap has special qualities that make it uniquely effective in the war on germs. There’s a scientific explanation, which you can read at your leisure in The New York Times, but here’s a quick excerpt…

When you wash your hands with soap and water, you surround any microorganisms on your skin with soap molecules.  The hydrophobic tails of the free-floating soap molecules attempt to evade water; in the process, they wedge themselves into the lipid envelopes of certain microbes and viruses, prying them apart.

“They act like crowbars and destabilize the whole system,” said Prof. Pall Thordarson. Essential proteins spill from the ruptured membranes into the surrounding water, killing the bacteria and rendering the viruses useless.

And by the way, “antibacterial” soap adds just about nothing to the process. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says: “To date, studies have shown that there is no added health benefit for consumers using soaps containing antibacterial ingredients compared with using plain soap.”

Rashid of Concern delivers part of a soap distribution

Rashid Moloah of Concern Worldwide delivers part of a consignment of soap to a health center in Sierra Leone during the 2014 Ebola crisis. Photo: Kieran McConville

While a thorough, all-over wash for at least 30 seconds is central to hand hygiene, rinsing is just as important — to wash away the bacteria that have been lifted from your hands.

Why the hands?

Because our hands are the parts of our body that most regularly come into contact with other people and substances and surfaces that can carry harmful bacteria. We may not realize it’s happening, but those hands very often end up coming in contact with our mouth or nose or eyes — all direct conduits for transferring bacteria effectively and efficiently into our operating system.

A handwashing lesson in CAR

Concern Health Promoter, Princia, teaches good hygiene practice in the Central African Republic. Photo: Kieran McConville

Hand sanitizer has become popular in recent years — and it has its uses — but there’s just no substitute for effective handwashing. Over the past five decades, in more than 70 countries, Concern staff have been hammering the message home to anyone who will listen. It’s the cheapest, easiest method of preventing everything from diarrheal diseases to pinkeye to viruses such as the cold, flu, and corona variants.

A mother in Ethiopia washes her child's hands.

A mother in Ethiopia washes her child’s hands with soap and water at a Concern nutrition clinic. Photo: Kieran McConville

Now, when we say it’s cheap and easy, we mean that in relative terms. For many, access to clean water and soap is far from easy. That’s why Concern and other organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building sustainable water systems, conducting countless hygiene training sessions, and ensuring a steady supply of soap to vulnerable households, especially those displaced by emergencies.

It works — trust the science

This massive collective effort has been having an effect. Childhood deaths from diarrheal disease have fallen by nearly 60 per cent in the last 30 years alone. Access to handwashing facilities has increased substantially… although not quickly enough. In 2017, 60 per cent of the global population (4.5 billion) had a basic handwashing facility with soap and water available at home. Another 22 per cent (1.6 billion) had handwashing facilities which lacked water or soap, and 18 per cent (1.4 billion) had no handwashing facility at all.

Concern ambassador Alexi Lubomirski tests a handwashing station at a Concern-supported school in rural Kenya. Photo: Kieran McConville

At a time when the world is facing an unprecedented health threat from viral infection primarily transferred through people’s hands, there really is no reason why this should not be everyone’s top priority. At Concern, we will redouble our efforts to promote good hand hygiene among those with whom we work — the communities most vulnerable to the effects of any outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic.

We’ve been saying it for 50 years, and we’ll keep saying it for as long as it takes. Handwashing saves lives.

COVID-19: Concern’s response

The COVID-19 pandemic is poised to have a catastrophic impact on the world’s poorest communities. Drawing on our long experience helping to control outbreaks like Ebola, we’re training and equipping teams across 23 countries to respond, and providing the most vulnerable communities with the resources they need to survive. Every context is different so we’ll respond with what’s needed most, including:

  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to health workers
  • Creating handwashing stations, distributing hygiene supplies, and providing other sanitation services to help prevent the spread
  • Ensuring communities get accurate and life-saving health information through print, radio, and text message campaigns
  • Supporting and training health facility staff
  • Providing cash transfers and livelihood and education support

We’re able to respond with such quickness and agility because of your committed support. It is the essential resource of our work. You can empower even more work by donating to our COVID-19 response.

Get updates on the fight against COVID-19 in the most vulnerable communities