We are very, very bad at washing our hands, says science

A whopping 95 percent of people are doing it wrong

Washing hands
(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

Let's talk about a very important and delightful subject: Washing your hands.

Your hands, as you've probably discovered by now, are very useful things. They help us tap keyboards, greet friends, and scratch itches. They also have the miraculous ability to hold stuff.

But because they're in a constant state of contact with the world and all its invisible ickiness, your hands can double as Petri dishes for bacterium like E. Coli and other fun diseases. One 2008 study, for example, identified more than 4,700 bacteria species spread across a rather narrow sample of 102 human hands. Hand-washing is in many ways our immune system's first and most powerful line of defense.

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But the fact of the matter is that we are very, very terrible at washing them. One recent study from Michigan State University found what may be the most disgusting statistic available: After observing 3,749 people using public restrooms (don't ask), researchers discovered that just five percent — five percent! — of all men and women were washing their hands correctly.

To make matters worse, research suggests hot water might not do all that much to stave off pesky germs, unless you somehow possess the bizarre ability to withstand 212°F temperatures.

Furthermore, the FDA is calling the safety of our current crop of antibacterial soaps into question: Triclosan, a chemical used in more than 75 percent of antibacterial soaps, might interfere with how hormones affect the body, "messing with fertility and puberty and increasing one's risk of cancer," reports The Verge.

So as we approach Flu Season 2013-14, what's the best way to wash your hands and keep germs and other nastiness from invading your delicate immune system? For the time being, at least, it may be best to stick with regular, non-antibacterial soaps. Frequency is still key: Wash your hands when you get into the office, after you press an elevator button, after gripping a subway pole, anytime you're about to put food in your mouth, etc.

If you need a refresher, here's how to best wash your hands, per the CDC's official hand-washing page:

Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.

Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice.

Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.

Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them. [CDC]

And remember: Do not touch the doorknob bare-handed on your way out.

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Chris Gayomali is the science and technology editor for TheWeek.com. Previously, he was a tech reporter at TIME. His work has also appeared in Men's Journal, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among other places. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.