Handwashing is far more important to all of us than it may sound. Quite simply, good hand hygiene is the most effective way to prevent the spread of colds, flu, food poisoning and hospital-acquired infections (HAI) such as MRSA. Not only will it help to avoid illness – with consequent days off work and school – washing hands means that we don’t need to take as many antibiotics, thus reducing the risk of antibiotic resistance and the rise of superbugs.
Extraordinarily, the link between handwashing and health was only identified in 1847 after Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that the rate of mothers dying from ‘childbed fever’ in hospital plummeted when doctors washed their hands with chlorinated lime. It was the first proof that cleansing hands could prevent infection, according to the Global Handwashing Partnership (globalhandwashing.org).
Despite Florence Nightingale taking up the cudgels after the Crimean War, handwashing in hospitals remained unpopular. Astonishingly, the practice then stalled until the last quarter of the 20th century when a string of foodborne outbreaks and HAIs prompted the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prioritise it.
You might think that hand hygiene in Western hospitals is a battle won. But a study last year showed that one in every 20 patients in European hospitals caught an infection, leading to some 90,000 deaths. A key factor is healthcare staff not correctly using alcohol-based gel dispensers, according to the World Health Organisation.
At home, NHS Choices advises always washing your hands thoroughly with soap after going to the lavatory (faecal matter on your hands spreads infection), before and after handling food (raw chicken may carry potentially fatal bacteria), after putting hands in the waste bin or petting an animal. If you’re out, Clinell Antibacterial 2 in 1 Action Hand Single Wipes are useful (£6.99 for 100, amazon.co.uk).
In many developing countries, more than eight out of ten schools and three in ten health facilities lack clean water and soap for handwashing, according to the charity WaterAid (wateraid.org). Marcia Kilgore, the entrepreneur behind brands including Soaper Duper, an affordable range of natural bath and body care, is passionate about helping to promote handwashing facilities in developing countries. Soaper Duper supports WaterAid and the Clean the World project (cleantheworld.org) to bring water and soap to communities that need it. ‘It’s often the simplest fixes that are the most effective, which is why we’re giving back a big portion of our profits to bring soap and water to people who need it,’ says Marcia. I love Soaper Duper’s big 500ml pump dispensers of Hand Wash and there’s no doubt a squish of Zingy Ginger (£5, tesco.com) makes sudsing up your hands much more enjoyable.