Washing hands – are we doing it effectively enough?

5 May 2021

World hand washing day

Today marks World Hand Hygiene Day (5th May), a day that has certainly earned extended recognition and support globally for its significance in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. 

“Seconds save lives – clean your hands!” is the title of this year’s campaign, focused on achieving appropriate hand hygiene action at the point of care.  With 2021 having been designated as the International Year of Health and Care Workers, a refined focus on the methods and procedures these key workers have around hand hygiene is important, not only for them and their patients, but also for wider society. 

Why hand hygiene is so important? 

Many of us are fully accustomed to the importance of effective handwashing etiquette from our childhood – before eating, when using the bathroom, and preparing food – but are we doing it often enough and effectively enough? 

Hand hygiene is a key part of preventing diseases, keeping us safe and supporting human immunity. It can reduce the transmission of antimicrobials, protect against gastrointestinal system infections (GSIs) reduce acute respiratory infections and pathogens to name a few. 

We know that using soap and water for the adequate amount of time and making sure you clean all areas of your hand, including nails and thumbs, followed by drying your hands with a clean towel or paper sheet, is very effective.  

How can we tell if we are doing a good job – what can hand swabs tell us?

At CLS we understand how the right handwashing protocol can have a positive impact with hand swab results. Through scientific analysis we can assess how successful the hand washing techniques that are being performed really are for our clients by carrying out hand swabs.  

Our tests check for TVC (total viable count) of bacteria on the hands and pathogens such as E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus for example. Presence of E. coli can indicate poor hand hygiene following use of facilities while staphylococcus aureus can highlight the presence of a cold or flu.  It is extremely rare that we would see a high level of either of these present, especially with our food clients or when carrying out clean room testing and analysis. 

Hand swabs are mainly carried out as part of our renowned Food Safety Programme for a range of clients in the hospitality sector, where cleanliness is a key requirement of service. It is also featured in our Building Biosafety Testing a key support service for those reopening and looking to strengthen their hygiene standards.

Testing the effectiveness of hand cleaning products 

How do we know if the soap or cleaning product we are using is good enough? 

Testing the effectiveness of soap or a detergent product is another service we offer, and we have done extensive analysis on a range of products for clients. A key part of this is to determine what microorganisms remain on the skin once the product has been used. We perform efficacy studies on soaps and hand sanitizers by making up a solution of bacteria such as E. coli, adding the product for 5-10 secs, then deactivating the test. Once deactivated we then test the solution for the percentage of bacteria that remains, and this determines the products efficacy. 

Handwashing advice 

The World Health Organization (WHO) advice for hand cleaning is one that you can control and is indicative to the situation you are in, in terms of the frequency required.

Use hands free and wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap and water for at least 20 seconds, taking the time to create a lather from the product used – washing the palms of your hands, back of your hands, between your fingers, fingertips and nails and not forgetting your thumbs. Proper drying of hands is also very important. 

If you would like to learn more about our programmes or product efficacy testing service, please get in touch with me directly by emailing aodonnell@cls.ie or call us on 091 574 355. 

Author – Anne O’Donnell, Director of Microbiology at CLS