Why is hand hygiene important?

We take a look at the importance of hand hygiene, how to wash your hands properly and how it can prevent the spread of germs and diseases.

men shaking hands

hand hygiene

For over 2,500 years, humans have shaken hands when being introduced to a new person, or to greet a friend or acquaintance.  Modern twists on the original handshake devised by the ancient Greeks have popped up in popular culture. However, these tend to be trends of particular eras, with a limited shelf-life, allowing the original handshake to reign supreme in almost all corners of the globe as the welcome gesture of choice. Little research had been done into the hygiene implications of shaking hands, until now…

In the early 1970’s, NBA Baltimore Bullets’ Fred Carter balled-up his fist and bumped it against a teammate’s closed fist after scoring a point – and with that, the humble fistbump was born. Its trivialization by 80’s and 90’s television shows and musicians was eventually glossed over when former U.S President Barack Obama ‘fist-bumped’ with his wife Michelle in 2008 to celebrate his presidential candidacy nomination. Dubbed by the Washington Post as, “the fist-bump heard around the world”, the fist-bump was thrust back into popular culture, and it looks as though there may be a strong argument for it to remain there for health reasons.

  • Why is hand hygiene important?

We live in a fairly health and hygiene-conscious age, with a particular focus on our hand hygiene. E-Coli, MRSA and a whole host of other superbugs have been grabbing the headlines in recent times. People have taken note, with things like disinfectant hand wash at every corner in hospitals and offices, but could your method of handshake make a difference too? A recent study, led by plastic surgeon Tom McClellan, found that handshakes encourage much more bacteria to spread than fist-bumps. This was put down to three-times as much skin on skin contact being initiated during a handshake, as well as a handshake lasting 2.7 times longer.


“Fist-bumping may lead to decreased transmission of bacteria and improved health and safety of patients and healthcare workers alike," McClellan and his colleagues wrote in their paper in the Journal of Hospital Infection.

  • How to wash your hands properly

That said, another study suggests that people only spread germs via handshakes as a result of failing to clean their hands properly. According to a study in The Journal of Environmental Health, only 5% of people wash their hands for 15 seconds or longer.

Before you start congratulating yourself for being among that 5%, you should be aware that the Centre forDisease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone should be washing their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds. Try counting that out in your head the next time you’re giving your hands a good scrub. This improper hand washing means that the vast majority of people are carrying a huge number of unnecessary germs and bacteria on their hands.

  • Quick facts

So, hand-shaking or fist-bumping? – The truth it would seem is that it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is to wash your hands regularly, for at least 20 seconds at a time!

Proper handwashing can reduce the risk of diarrhoea by nearly 50%

Next step:

Find out more tips on how to stay healthy while living abroad, by visiting our Expat Resource Centre, here.

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