Everything you should know about hand hygiene

Why do we wash our hands?

Through our hands we can very easily spread germs. For example you may touch something that many other people have touched, such as a door handle, and then later touch your face without realising. This is just one way you can accidentally infect yourself with germs and viruses that can make you sick. Hand hygiene is the most important way to avoid the spread of harmful germs and prevent infections.

If you have received a cancer diagnosis or are undergoing cancer treatment, you may have a weakened immune system. This leaves you more vulnerable to general infections, which can result in:

  • Illness
  • Admission to hospital
  • Slower recovery
  • Emotional distress

How do germs spread?

Germs can spread from other people or surfaces when you:

  • Touch your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Handle or eat food and drinks with unwashed hands
  • Come into contact with a contaminated surface or object
  • Blow your nose, cough or sneeze into your hands and then touch other people’s hands or surfaces

How should I wash my hands?

There are two different ways you can wash your hands.

If your hands are visibly dirty, it is very important to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and then dry your hands. An easy way to time this is to sing Happy Birthday twice.

When your hands are visibly clean, you may like to wash your hands using soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub (also known as hand sanitiser). Hand sanitiser is only effective when your hands are visibly clean.

To wash your hands using hand sanitiser, you should:

  • Remove any jewellery
  • Use enough hand sanitiser to cover both of your hands, usually around half a teaspoon
  • Make sure this covers all surfaces of your hand including your palms, back of hands and between fingers, then rub your hands together until dry (about 20 to 30 seconds)

When should I wash my hands?

You should wash your hands before touching anything that should stay clean and after touching anything that may spread germs.

This might include:

  • When your hands are visibly dirty
  • After going to the toilet or helping a child go to the toilet (including changing a nappy)
  • After handling rubbish or chemicals
  • Before, during and after you prepare, handle or eat food
  • Before touching your face (such as to apply contact lenses or makeup)
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • After touching an animal
  • After cleaning the bathroom or anything that could be contaminated with body fluids (such as vomit)
  • After you touch a common surface in a public space (e.g. shopping trollies and petrol pumps)
  • Before and after you visit someone who is unwell
  • Before and after you care for an injury (such as a wound or rash)

Looking after your hands

When you regularly wash your hands, sometimes your skin may become dry and cracked. This can then make your handwashing less effective against germs. To care for your hands, you should:

  • Regularly use a protective hand cream or lotion,
  • Choose a hand sanitiser or soap that is low in fragrance and preservatives
  • Use room temperature water when washing your hands with soap
  • Make sure your hands are completely dry after you wash them

If you think this may be a sign of an infection or allergy, we encourage you to discuss this with your doctor.


For a full list of references, click here.
  1. Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Healthcare. (2019). National Hand Hygiene Initiative Brochure – Acute. Retrieved on 1 May 2020 from https://www.safetyandquality.gov.au/publications-and-resources/resource-library/national-hand-hygiene-initiative-brochure-acute
  2. Healthdirect. (2018). Hand washing. Retrieved on 1 May 2020 from https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/hand-washing
  3. Hand Hygiene Australia. (2020). What is Hand Hygiene. Retrieved on 1 May 2020 from https://www.hha.org.au/hand-hygiene/what-is-hand-hygiene
  4. Hand Hygiene Australia. (2020). Hand Care Issues. Retrieved on 1 May 2020 from https://www.hha.org.au/hand-hygiene/what-is-hand-hygiene/hand-care-issues

The content found on the Icon Cancer Centre website is intended solely for informational purposes and should not be considered as medical advice. It is not a substitute for consulting with a qualified medical professional. Our website is designed to provide information and support to the general public. Please be mindful that we do not dispense medical advice, and for personalised medical guidance, we strongly advise you to consult with a qualified medical professional or doctor.

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