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Quick Dose: Can You Wash Your Hands Too Much?

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When it comes to combatting the flu and avoiding illness, hand-washing is one of your first lines of defense. While good hygiene is certainly important, is there such a thing as washing too much?

Introduced in the late 1980s by a professor, the hygiene hypothesis suggests that a limited exposure to bacteria could compromise your immune system, making you susceptible to illness. The theory is that exposure to small amounts of bacteria “trains” your immune system to fight it. This training then strengthens your immune system, making it better able to respond when more germs invade your body.

The reality is, we are constantly surrounded by germs hidden in plain sight. The flu virus alone can live on a door handle for 24 hours. Studies have shown that washing your hands can prevent one in three diarrhea-related sicknesses and one in five respiratory infections. This 30-second routine can single-handedly help you in the battle against germs.

A good rule of thumb is to wash hands thoroughly when needed, such as prior to handling food, after using the restroom and after blowing your nose. To most effectively remove germs, wash hands for 30 seconds, about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday.” Dry hands completely afterwards, which can remove any lingering germs.

If water and soap is not available, you can also use a hand sanitizer. Make sure to buy a product that is at least 60 percent alcohol.

-Luis A. Manrique, MD, Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group, Infectious Diseases

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