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It’s extremely important to wash your hands frequently in order to stay healthy and germ-free. But how long should you actually wash your hands? And does the kind of soap and temperature of the water matter? Here’s how to wash your hands effectively.

What’s the best type of soap for washing your hands?

The next time you’re agonizing over which soap is the best at battling viruses and cold bugs, don’t sweat it. It turns out that buzzwords and phrases like “antibacterial” and “kills 99 percent of germs” are all well and good, but the type of soap you’re using to wash your hands doesn’t matter as much as your technique. According to Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health, “The actual rubbing from hand-washing is what breaks down viruses and bacteria. The soap and water wash them off your hands and get them down the drain.”

The CDC concurs. The agency says there is no scientific evidence behind the argument that the type of soap you use matters—they’re all effective at killing germs and rinsing them away.

How hot or cold should the water be?

The temperature of the water you use to wash your hands is something else you can get hung up on, but the experts say this is a nonissue. While you might think that hot water is best for killing germs (aren’t we supposed to boil things to sterilize them?), the CDC actually notes that “the temperature of the water does not appear to affect microbe removal,” meaning scalding or freezing your hands is definitely unnecessary. The CDC adds that washing your hands with hotter water is actually a bad idea because it “may cause more skin irritation and is more environmentally costly.”

How do I wash my hands the right way?

It seems simple enough: Soap + water = clean hands. But it’s really important to make sure you’re doing it long enough and hitting all the germy hot spots.

1. Turn on the tap to get the water flowing. This seems like a “duh” step, but it might be an eye-opener for anyone who’s used to dunking their hands into water to scrub up. The CDC says that it’s best to wash your hands under clean, flowing water instead of in a basin or bowl because germs can breed and survive in water that isn’t moving.

2. Use enough soap to work up a lather and scrub your palms together. Wash both thumbs, between all of your fingers, under each nail (we’ll get to that in a sec) and the backs of your hands.

3. Continue to scrub for at least 20 seconds. To know you’ve washed long enough, the CDC recommends humming the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself two times through, or, if you just cannot take that song anymore, try the first part of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. The lines from “Raindrops on roses” to the second time she sings “These are a few of my favorite things” clock in at just under 30 seconds. Julie Andrews has you covered. 

4.Rinse your hands until the soap is gone and then turn off the water. The CDC says no studies show you can recontaminate your hands by using them to turn off the water once you’re through, so save the paper towels for the last step: Drying.

5. Dry your hands with a clean paper towel. You can also let them air-dry if you prefer, just don’t touch anything while they’re still wet. “Germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands,” explains the CDC.

Wait, what about under my nails?

Funny you should ask, because Dr. Parikh says our nails are often forgotten when we’re washing our hands—a serious oversight.

“One huge place for germs to hide is under the fingernails,” she says. “Keep your nails short, if you can, to avoid having germs grow in there. But if you have long nails, make sure to scrub under them.” Use the nails on your opposite hands to work in the soap while you’re washing your hands, Dr. Parikh suggests, even if you don’t see any dirt hanging out in there.

So, there you have it. The most effective way to wash your hands doesn’t require any special products, just a little time and elbow grease. Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…

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