When to Wash Hands: Stats, Scary Facts & More

Confused about when to wash hands? You’re not alone.

Due to Covid-19 to wash hands, or to not wash hands, is no longer a negotiable behavior.  The ongoing pandemic forces us to make a conscious effort to go from mere intention to a healthy handwashing habit to protect ourselves and those around us.

But what is a handwashing habit?

According to Globalhandwashing.org the

“Handwashing habit formation requires converting handwashing from a behavior that people decide to undertake (intention)into an action that is an automatic response and does not involve the decision-making parts ofthe brain (habit)”

When to Wash Hands is a Learned Behavior

You may not know but we start to form behaviors during infancy (~7 month und up). We mimic the people who take care of us. As we grow older we are exposed to even more people including, but not limited, to extended family, friends, teachers and the television.  And, more importantly, we see/hear, mimic, and integrate behaviors until they become a habit.

And thus, from a global society perspective, the habit of washing hands after coming into contact with feces is down right scary.

Observed Handwashing Behavior Around The World
RegionPrevalence of Handwashing After Contact with Feces (%)
Americas (High-income)49%
Americas (Low-income)16%
Europe (High-income)44%
Europe (Low-income)15%
Southeast Asia17%
The World19%

Source: Freeman et al., 2014

When you look at these numbers you may wonder…

But, if, by chance, you haven’t cultivated safe and healthy handwashing behavior until recently trace it back to when and where it started

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Therefore, don’t beat yourself up about what you did not know. 


To help you in your detective work I have included a few definitions and bolded a view words as starting points. You may want to draw a timeline and enter the name of the top influencers.


  • Culture—the language, beliefs, norms, values, behaviors and even material objects that are passed from one generation to the next.
  • Subculture—the values and related behaviors of a group that distinguish its members from the larger culture, a world within a world.
  • Society—people who share a culture and a territory.

Source: Sociology

Did you do the exercise?

Not so happy about your discovery?

Don’t fret and look at the bright side

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By the time you finish reading this article not only will you know the ‘when to wash hands’ but also the ‘why to wash hands’.

In short, make handwashing your weapon to destroy germs, bacteria, and viruses.

” handwashing with soap can reduce diarrheal episodes by 28 to 47%

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Handwashing Statistics After Onset of COVID-19

Has Covid-19 changed the behaviour of washing hands more frequently?  According to new statistics it has. But to what extent.  According to a recent study (n=1434 participants), “in the direct questioning group 94.5% of the participants claimed to practice proper hand hygiene; in the indirect questioning group a significantly lower estimate of only 78.1% was observed.”(2).

The later estimates are more realistic, while not perfect, and come closer to the findings of another study.

Statista, a company specializing in market and consumer data, conducted a survey (n=4,053 respondents) between June 10 to 25, 2020 with the following results.  

Handwashing Statistics By Age Group

18-2425-3435-4445-5455-6465-7475 +
Before eating at home70.8%66.7%72%75.6%81.1%78.8%78.8%
Before eating at a restaurant65.2%65.6%69.3%75%75.1%74%67.2%
Before preparing food at home77%81.8%85.2%88.4%90.9%87.8%87.8%
After using the bathroom at home88%88%86.7%91.1%91.5%91.9%91.1%
After using the bathroom in public90.7%94.7%94.1%95.3%96.5%96.7%93.5%
After coughing, sneezing, or blowing nose70.5%64%70.9%73.8%74.6%75.3%69.2%

Source: Statista

When to wash hands…

1. Before, during and after preparing food.

The kitchen is a busy germ-laden environment — a microbial incubator. First, you  bring in groceries including fresh, raw, and packaged food.  Next, you clean and prepare these foods. Third, you clean up the utensils, like cutting boards. Fourth, you keep  textiles,  including sponges, in the kitchen.  Germs love cutting boards and sponges. One study found as many as 362 OTUs—different species of bacteries living on spounges.

Key times to wash hands in the kitchen include:

  • Before, during, and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or its packaging, and eggs.  You could become ill by picking up a piece of fruit and eating it after handling raw meat, poultry, or seafood without properly washing your hands.
  • What about the eggs.  The FDA recommends to wash hands, utensils, equipment, and work surfaces with hot, soapy water before and after they come in contact with raw eggs and raw egg-containing foods.
  • After wiping counters or cleaning other surfaces with chemicals.  Chemicals are toxic and can get transferred to food, kitchen utensils, and your body (think eyes, nose, and mouth).  
  • Before and after using gloves.  You can contaminate gloves with your hands when you put on gloves, and spread germs to hands when you remove the gloves. 
  • After touching garbage. see below.

” handwashing with soap can reduce acute respiratory infections, 

when to wash hands
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such as pneumonia, by 20 to 50%” 

2. Before and after eating food.

Germs from unwashed hands can get into foods and drinks while people consume them.  When you wash your hands before eating you can prevent the following eight(8) disease: throat infections, diarrhea, respiratory diseases, food-born infections, amoebiasis, botulism, hepatitis A,  and shigellosis.

But why wash hands after eating?  While I couldn’t find any germ-related reasons, here are a few that make sense.  If you touched food, you want to get rid of any food residue. You don’t want to transfer these to you face, hair,  clothes, and other objects you frequently touch.  Another reason for handwashing after eating is to get rid of potentially lingering smells.

3. Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea.

4. Before and after treating a cut or wound.

The primary role of skin is to protect the body from organisms or toxic substances, while maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance. It is the barrier between our body and the environment we live in.  Because of this, skin develops an ecosystem that may be colonized with bacteria, viruses, fungi, and mites.(4

5. After using the toilet, period.

According to the CDC, germs  like Salmonella, E. coli O157, and norovirus  can get onto your hands after using the toilet.  These germs can cause diarrhea and can spread some respiratory infections. Moreover, germs are not restricted to just wiping. For example, you open the door, then you lift the lid, you do your business, then you flush. What else do you touch?  Any object you touch has germs on it because someone coughed or sneezed on it or was touched by some other contaminated object. And, unless you wash your hands, you can actually leave the bathroom with twice the germs on your hands as when you entered.(5)

 “a single gram of human feces—which is about the weight of a 

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paper clip—can contain one trillion germs”

when to wash hands infographic
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When to wash hands continued…

6. After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet.

Similar to using the toilet, when you change a diaper or clean up a child, you come into contact with germs.  Protect yourself and the child by follow safe diapering steps as outlined by the CDC

7. After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.


8. After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste.

According to the CDC, “to decrease the possibility of contracting a zoonotic disease (a disease transmitted between animals and humans), it is essential to wash hands with soap and water after petting, feeding, handling, or having any other contact with animals, their living quarters, or their waste.”

9. After handling pet food or pet treats.

Both, dry and canned pet food, as well as treats, can be contaminated with germs. Because of this, you should always wash your hands with soap and water after handling any type of pet food. For more info about pet food safety visit CDC.gov


10. After touching garbage.

Other times when to wash hands

11. After touching potentially infected surfaces — doorknobs, railings, or shopping carts.

12. After touching almost anything in a doctor’s office.

13. After handling your phone, laptop, or other electrical devices.

14. After touching your hair or scratching yourself.

15. After handling a restaurant menu.

14. After handling money.

15. After returning home.

16. After shaking hands.

17. Any time they are dirty.

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When to wash hands continued…

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