“It’s time for dinner. Go wash your hands,” is a worthwhile admonition from Mom to the kids. The kids obediently troop off to the bathroom sink. What happens there sometimes remains a mystery.
Often the cold water goes on, fingers or even palms of hands are dipped under the running water, hands are wiped on the nearest towel or more likely on clothing, and the hungry troops scurry to the kitchen table to make sure they get their fair share of the mealtime offerings.
None of this is a secret, really, and certainly a quick rinse to get the visible dirt off can’t hurt. Although in most hand washing we are not preparing for surgery, there is more to it than a quick dip in water.
For small kids, the advantages are obvious. Fingers were invented before the spoon, and kids have not lost sight of that fact. Not only will those grubby little fingers find their way from their plates into their mouths, if you are not vigilant they will also reach out and grab food from main dishes contaminating the whole of it.
Unless you are truly paranoid or dealing with serious immune deficiencies, no right minded person is going to throw away an entire dish of food that they spent money for and time preparing.
Fortunately, our immune systems help protect us from the microbes around us and as the old saying goes “you’ll eat a peck of dirt before you die.”
Nevertheless, the best answer is to make sure those little paws are clean at the outset of the meal. The “official” stand involves soap and warm water and scrubbing for 20 seconds. It should include an effort to clean under nails, between fingers and in pores and cracks in the skin. That 20-second wash should be followed by drying hands on a clean towel to avoid rubbing dirt back onto the hands.
The hands that prepare the meal should be even more vigilant. According to Angela Fraser, food safety researcher at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., whenever you divert to any of a number of common events, you should wash hands. A restroom break, handling raw meat, picking things up from the floor, switching between preparation of food products, touching your hair, or any of a number of other activities — that 20-second hand cleaning is order.
There are practical considerations for this that suggest yet again that it is a good thing we have some immunity built in. One study observed that food services workers might contaminate their hands from 27 to 30 times in the course of an hour. That 20-second hand wash, takes longer than 20 seconds if you add in the time getting to the washroom, dispensing the soap, turning water on and off, rubbing hands for 20 seconds then rinsing completely, drying hands and then going back to work.
One to three minutes spent washing hands 30 times an hour? Not likely. That explains why so many companies have opted to use plastic gloves for food safety protection.
Keeping hands clean is still essential. Water is a good start for hand cleaning, but soap creates a slick environment that makes it easier for the contaminants to slide away. Scrubbing helps lift germs from pores and cracks in hands and if done correctly, from under nails.
We have further misconceptions about cleaning hands. Somewhere people got the idea that washing hands involves killing bacteria, parasites and viruses. Anti-bacterial soap and hand sanitizers have furthered this concept, according to Fraser.
We have the idea that anti-bacterial soaps are more effective against viruses, bacteria and parasites, but, Fraser said, the antibacterial properties mostly keep the soap itself from being contaminated. Anti-bacterial and plain soaps are equally useful since effective washing doesn’t kill any of these microorganisms — it washes them away.
Over-the-counter hand sanitizers do destroy some microorganisms, and they certainly serve better than nothing, but the active ingredient in these products is alcohol, which is not very effective against the noroviruses that cause many food-borne illnesses. Noroviruses are a diverse group that cause symptoms of stomach flu from eating contaminated food.
Fraser goes on to say that drying hands with a clean paper towel is better than air drying, because the friction of rubbing drags off more germs. A well-used hand towel is less effective because of the germs they harbor. Those germs can be rubbed onto hands as easily as they can be rubbed off.
We will probably never succeed in being truly germ-free, but a little diligence to the small things makes a big difference in keeping ourselves and those around us safer.