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October 15 is Global Handwashing Day

Did you know that there is an annual celebration that recognises the importance of handwashing?

Global Handwashing Day is celebrated every 15th of October and it is a global advocacy that aims to emphasise the role of regular handwashing with soap as an “easy, effective and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives.”

The first celebration was held over a decade ago, in 2008, marked by 120 million children washing their hands with soap in over 70 countries from around the world. Since then, this day has been used as a platform to spread the importance of handwashing, highlight the value of clean hands and support the building of more sinks and tippy taps in areas where they are most needed.

This global advocacy was founded by the Global Handwashing Partnership—an international coalition of organisations from private and public sectors that share the vision of promoting handwashing with soap as a universal practice. Members include FHI 360, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, Colgate-Palmolive, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, World Bank, Procter and Gamble, Unilever, UNICEF and USAID.

This year, the theme for Global Handwashing Day is ‘Clean Hands for All’—a call to address the inequalities that many communities and individuals face when it comes to accessing adequate handwashing facilities.

How to wash your hands properly

Handwashing is almost a no-brainer for most people, but did you know that there is actually a proper technique that helps ensure thorough germ and bacteria removal? This is particularly recommended when using public or commercial washrooms.

Here’s a quick and very easy step-by-step guide.

  1. Wet hands.
  2. Turn off the tap.
  3. Lather soap.
  4. Scrub hands for 20 seconds—front, back, in between fingers and underneath fingernails. (Top tip: Sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice.)
  5. Rinse hands under running water.
  6. Dry hands with a clean paper towel or a hand dryer.

The life-saving importance of handwashing

Handwashing with clean water and soap is about hygiene but more importantly, it is about preventing the spread of disease-causing germs and bacteria.

How do germs get into our hands?

There are obvious ways that they do, especially when we touch something visibly filthy. But sometimes, we tend to overlook the many other ways that we come in contact with germs, like after using the toilet, changing nappies and handling raw meats which can contain invisible amount of animal faeces.

When we touch objects, like toys or handrails in public places, that have been coughed on, we also unknowingly transmit germs. And when we unconsciously touch our nose, eyes or mouth, we can pass on those germs from our hands. Sometimes, even the food prepared by people who did not wash their hands properly can carry germs that go into our body when we consume those food items.

In reality, it is almost inevitable to avoid germs, which is why the simplest way to counter its potentially health-threatening effects is to regularly hand wash with clean water and soap. By doing so, we, and the people around us, can prevent diarrhoea, respiratory diseases and even skin and eye infections.

Studies have shown that proper handwashing techniques can help reduce cases of diarrhoea by up to 40% and among those with compromised immune systems, up to 58%. It can help decrease the spread of respiratory illnesses by up to 21% and minimise illness-related absenteeism among school children by 29 to 57%. It can also help prevent antibiotic resistance because antibiotics are often prescribed for health issues that can be prevented by regular and proper handwashing.

These figures are crucial because around the world, around 1.8 million children under five years old die from preventable diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Beyond health and wellness, handwashing also has a major impact in ensuring more children are physically fit enough to attend school, helping bridge the gender health gap in certain communities, improving productivity and reducing healthcare costs.

Handwashing in commercial and public washrooms

Handwashing is especially important when using commercial or public washrooms, given the high foot traffic in these areas and consequently, increased chances of cross contamination.

Access to clean, running water and soap are the basics of handwashing but minimising contamination is also crucial, which is why many washrooms now feature sensor taps (as well as automatic soap dispensers) for ‘hands-free’ washing.

Sensor taps and automatic soap (or hand sanitiser) dispensers reduce the need for contact so you can go from the toilet to wash basin with minimal touching. From a resource management perspective, they are also deemed more water- and energy-efficient in the long run.

When it comes to drying, many washrooms still offer both hand paper towels and hand dryers. But which one is more ideal?

It basically boils down to personal preference, but it is worth nothing the pros and cons for each option.

For starters, hand dryers actually end up costing less than paper towels, despite the fact that the upfront cost for a hand dryer is higher. In terms of environmental impact, studies have shown that both paper towels and hand dryers have about the same carbon footprint because even while paper towels come from trees, energy is also consumed every time we dry our hands with an electrically powered device.

When it comes to hygiene, paper towels seem to have the advantage. One study noted that paper towels are more efficient when it comes to drying hands and removing bacteria. The same study also recommends that paper towels should be available in areas where hygiene is paramount, namely hospitals and clinics.

Other studies also point out that, with automatic hand dryers, users are more likely to not completely dry their hands and end up wiping them on their clothes or going out with partially wet hands, both of which are unhygienic.

Regardless of your choice, it is important to note that the ultimate goal is complete dryness, because wet hands spread bacteria faster. Whichever method you prefer, there should always be a conscious effort to ensure that hands are completely dry after washing.

Happy Global Handwashing Day!

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