“The COVID-19 pandemic provides an important reminder that handwashing with soap and water is one of the simplest, most effective ways to stop the spread of germs and stay healthy,” said Vincent Hill, chief of the Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, via email. “Many germs that can make people sick are spread when we don’t wash our hands with soap and clean, running water.
“Handwashing with soap and water can prevent 1 in 3 people from getting sick with diarrhea and 1 in 5 people from getting a respiratory illness. That is why handwashing is so important, especially at key times such as after using the bathroom, when preparing food, before eating, and after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose.”
Here’s why some people don’t wash their hands, why others are unable to and how to increase motivation to hand-wash more often.
Why some people don’t wash their hands
The factors that influence handwashing behaviors are likely to be optimistic bias — thinking disease can’t happen to them — or underestimating the severity of the risk, said Barbara Mullan, a professor and director of the Health Psychology & Behavioural Medicine Research Group at Curtin University in Australia.
“Some argue that we humans are prone to physiological disgust reactions, that is when really horrible looking grime and filth are observed we are motivated to remove ourselves from the disgusting situation or remove the disgusting agent,” Berry said via email. “But as to Covid-19, this virus is mercurial; much of the confusion and debate is directly related to its invisibility. We all know that Covid-19 is out there somewhere, but exactly where and with whom is the big question.”
Feeling that the benefits aren’t worth the effort and men thinking that such small germs couldn’t possibly harm them are other deterrents, Mullan added.
Being in a rush with work responsibilities can make us forgetful, Berry said. And the handwashing cues that serve as reminders — like signs and social cues since we care what others think — are not always present while we’re physically distancing. However, handwashing is a privilege that billions of people wouldn’t take for granted.
Vast barriers to proper handwashing
Protecting your hands during the pandemic and winter
Moisturizers containing mineral oil or petrolatum are recommended since they are “key lubricating ingredients exceptional for hydrating dry skin,” Friedman said. Ointments and creams in tubes are better than bottles since tubes minimize air exposure and are thus more effective, he added. Products that are free of fragrance and dye are less irritating for the skin. And if you wear lotion, be sure to apply ointments and creams over the lotion since lotions are least moisturizing.
Alcohol, the primary ingredient in hand sanitizer, is “one of the most common irritating ingredients to the skin,” Friedman said. “Dry cracked skin impairs the skin’s protective barrier (and) makes it easier for bacteria and other germs to get inside the body. Applying moisturizer after handwashing helps heal dry skin,” strengthening the skin barrier.
After using hand sanitizer, the same steps apply. If you’re using a topical medication for a skin condition, Friedman added, apply products with the same key ingredients over your medication. For an extra moisture boost, apply petrolatum jelly before bed, wear white cotton gloves at night to keep cream on and use a humidifier since heating contributes to dry skin.
Tips for washing your hands more often
Increasing “motivation to hand wash in the face of stress and busyness is a difficult challenge,” Berry said. Since we don’t have the signage and social cues we usually do in public, a few strategies could help grow motivation and “go a long way to remind us of our motivations to be more hygienic.”
- Build your knowledge of the coronavirus and the risks.
- Tape to your entrance hall and bathroom wall or mirror pieces of paper that say, “Don’t forget to wash hands.”
- Further internalize the habit and motivation by creating a routine and considering yourself a role model for others.
By thinking of oneself as a role model, “we engage the activity differently; we consciously begin to identify that hand washing is an important” personal and social value to be shared with others, Berry said. “You begin to see yourself as an active participant in the solution, making the world better, and it feels good to do something positive too.”
“The concept of chunking is very common in habit research and is really important,” Mullan said. “If we can hook one behavior on to another we are much more likely to do it.”