Don’t freak out, but there are millions of bacteria on your hands right now.
Published December 1, 2021

People are bad at washing their hands. Even with the pandemic still upon us, handwashing habits aren’t up to snuff.

Using data from June of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 1 in 4 people failed to soap up in situations where experts advise handwashing.

Looking back to before the pandemic, a study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that only about a third of people soaped up after handling raw meat. And most of those people still didn’t wash properly. Only 1% to 2% of people cleaned well enough to kill off meat-borne pathogens.

“Most people don’t know how to properly wash their hands,” says Donald J. Alcendor, PhD. He’s an associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and physiology at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.

How do you do it? Start by lathering up for 20 seconds, according to the CDC. During this time, you should scrub your palms, the backs of your hands, the spaces between your fingers and underneath your fingernails.

As for when to soap up: “You wash as often as you interact with surfaces that are considered contaminated,” Alcendor says. According to the CDC, that includes:

  • After going to the bathroom
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • After touching garbage
  • After changing a diaper
  • After handling pet food or treats
  • After disposing of animal waste
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • Before and after eating
  • Before, after and during food prep

Following these guidelines can have a big impact. It can reduce respiratory illnesses by 21%, according to the CDC. And it can reduce diarrhea-related illnesses by as much as 58%.

But if you find yourself in need of medication for illnesses such as these, Optum Perks might be able to help you save money. Download our free mobile app to search for discounts at pharmacies in your area.

And if you’re still not convinced that handwashing is necessary — well, keep reading.

1. Your hands are covered in a jungle of bacteria

Every time you touch something, you could be picking up bacteria. As a result, the typical hand has about 1,500 bacteria on each square centimeter. That’s according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

A large review published in the Journal of Dermatological Science found that the human hand can host more than 150 species from 8 to 12 bacterial families. Basically, you have a microscopic jungle of bugs stretched across your hands.

2. You probably touch your face 50 times per hour

In a review of 10 studies, researchers from the University of Auckland in New Zealand concluded that most people touch their face about 50 times per hour, on average.

Activities associated with face touching included using a smartphone, listening to music, accessing memories and experiencing emotions — as well as doing “no task.” In other words, your hands are on your face all the time. And that could allow those 1,500 bacteria to enter your mouth, nose and eyeballs.

3. A sneeze expels 40,000 respiratory droplets

This number was cited in research published by the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. The researchers noted that those droplets can carry pathogens such as influenza and SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.

After you sneeze, you should head right to the sink. Washing your hands will help you avoid passing pathogens to your family and friends.

(Save yourself a trip to the pharmacy: We can deliver medication right to your mailbox. Learn more about prescriptions on the Optum Store.)

4. Your smartphone is filthy

How many times do you handle your phone each day? Factor in every time you text, check social media or pull up music. Maybe you’re on it right now, reading this story.

So it’s unfortunate to learn that it’s covered with germs. In an academic review of 56 studies, researchers found that 68% of smartphones had pathogens such as E. coli, staphylococcus aureus and Acinetobacter.

The review’s authors called a mobile phone a “Trojan horse” that carries germs to your hands. And when that Trojan horse rings, you put it right up against your face.

So in addition to washing your hands, you might want to start wiping down your phone with a screen-safe alcohol-based cleaner. Another dirty fact from the review: A whopping 72% of mobile phone users never clean their devices.

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5. Bacteria populations can double every 20 minutes

You don’t have to touch anything to become covered in germs. Bacteria are among the fastest reproducing organisms in the world. In ideal conditions, they can divide every 20 minutes, according to the Microbiology Society. That leads to exponential growth, and after 8 hours, 1 bacterium could grow into an army of 17 million.

Viruses, on the other hand, can’t replicate on the outer layer of skin. But they can still contribute to the overall germy environment on your hands. According to a study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on human skin for 9 hours.

That makes washing your hands the easiest, cheapest and most reliable way to keep you and your family safe. But if you do get sick, Optum Perks may be able to help you save on your medication. To get the potential savings, just download our free discount card and show it to the pharmacist at checkout.

Additional sources

Poor handwashing while cooking: U.S. Department of Agriculture (2018). “Food Safety Consumer Research Project: Meal Preparation Experiment Related to Thermometer Use

Proper handwashing: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

1 in 4 people failed to wash hands even during the pandemic: CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (2020). “Characteristics Associated with Adults Remembering to Wash Hands in Multiple Situations Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, October 2019 and June 2020

Hands contain more than 150 bacteria species: Journal of Dermatological Science (2015). “Review of human hand microbiome research

Hands contain 1,500 bacteria per square centimeter: Minnesota Department of Health

People touch their faces about 50 times per hour: Annals of Global Health (2020). “How Frequently Do We Touch Facial T-Zone: A Systematic Review

A sneeze expels 40,000 respiratory droplets: American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (2020). “Coughs and Sneezes: Their Role in Transmission of Respiratory Viral Infections, Including SARS-CoV-2

68% of smartphones are contaminated: Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease (2020). “Mobile phones represent a pathway for microbial transmission: A scoping review

Bacteria can reproduce every 20 minutes: Microbiology Society

SARS-CoV-2 can survive on hands for 9 hours: Clinical Infectious Diseases (2020). “Survival of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and Influenza Virus on Human Skin: Importance of Hand Hygiene in Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)