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Hand hygiene

Article discussing the benefits of hand hygiene, importance of soap, and when we should wash our hands. Watch a video on how to wash hands.
cartoon image of hands and bubbles

Hand hygiene is possibly the single most effective way of reducing and preventing the spread of infection and an important behavioural intervention to instil and reinforce from a young age.

Why is hand hygiene so important?

  • Schools and community groups are a relatively crowded and closed environment where harmful microbes can spread easily and rapidly from child to child via direct contact or via surfaces.
  • Washing our hands with soap and water at key moments removes any harmful microbes we pick up on our hands from our surroundings (e.g. home, school, garden, animals, pets, food).
  • Effective handwashing has been shown to reduce absenteeism rates in schools. Absenteeism rates were lower during flu season for primary school students who received short hand hygiene instruction.
  • Washing our hands also helps prevent the spread of antibiotic resistance (which we will cover in week 2).

Why is soap needed for effective handwashing?

  • Our hands are naturally covered by useful bacteria – usually these are Staphylococcus (ball shaped bacteria arranged in clusters).
  • Our hands naturally secrete oil which helps to keep our skin moist, and keeps our skin microbiome healthy.
  • This oil, however, is a perfect place for microbes to grow and multiply, and the oil helps microbes “stick” to our skin.
  • Soap is required to break up the oils on the surface of the hands which traps microbes. Harmful microbes, other than Staphylococcus aureus, do not usually grow on our skin, but the oil helps them stick to our skin.
  • Washing hands in water alone will only eliminate visible dirt and grime, however without soap, invisible microbes will remain.
  • Note however, soap only has a limited killing action on microbes. This means that rinsing hands under running water is equally important to remove microbes from the hands.

Watch this NHS video on how to wash your hands.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

A PDF summary of the video can be found in the downloads section below.

Key moments for handwashing

  • Before, during and after preparing food, including raw meat
  • Before eating or handling ready to eat food
  • After using the toilet
  • After exposure to animals or animal waste
  • After coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
  • If you are ill or have been around ill people
  • Get home or into work/school

Cartoon image showing how we can 'break the chain of infection' - wash hands after handling pets, after visiting the toilet, after touching food, and after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose (Click to take a closer look)

Image taken from RSPH Report: Too clean or not too clean?

Where there is an outbreak of infection it is important that you wash your hands more often and for 20 seconds and follow key guidance on respiratory hygiene. Click here to see a COVID-19 guidance poster for educational settings. (You can also find this in the downloads section below.


PHE Resource Centre

e-Bug resources

This NHS video on handwashing features a song to encourage children to wash their hands using the six steps of handwashing over a 20 second period.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

A PDF summary of the video can be found in the downloads section below.

Comment below – do children in your setting understand the importance of washing their hands? Are they encouraged to do so throughout the day?

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Preventing and Managing Infections in Childcare and Pre-school

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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