What Researchers Found When They Had a Handwashing Contest

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Photo: Jutta Klee/Getty Images

If you happen to be a huge, weird nerd about handwashing, you might know that two very big and influential health organizations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organizations, have conflicting guidelines about what constitutes good handwashing. The CDC, for example, states that a good hand scrub should take 35 seconds, while to the WHO that’s 7.5 seconds seconds less than what’s really necessary to get all those little joints and creases. And the individual steps the two organizations suggest are very different.

So, an obvious question: Which is better? Researchers are on the case. As NPR’s Maanvi Singh reports, “In a small study recently published in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, researchers at the Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland watched carefully as 42 doctors and 78 nurses cleaned their hands using either the CDC or WHO routine.” The verdict? “They found that the WHO technique reduced the average bacterial count on the medical workers’ hands slightly more than the CDC’s method.”

Luckily, both methods appear to do what they are designed to do — they eliminate the bacteria that can cause a lot of trouble, ranging from the flu to deadly diseases. “The real issue is that health care workers aren’t cleaning their hands as often and as thoroughly as they should — basically every time they touch their faces or touch anything that isn’t sterile,” writes Singh.

If you aren’t a health-care worker, of course, you don’t need to be quite so fastidious — but it still might be useful to familiarize yourself with either the WHO’s guidelines, or, if you’re often in a hurry and feel like you won’t be able to spare those extra 7.5 seconds, the CDC’s.

What Researchers Found When They Had a Handwashing Contest