What is one of the most important thing you can do to fight food poisoning? Here are a few hints:

It takes only 20 seconds (if you do it the right way).

It requires only 3 ingredients.

Anyone can do it, even very young children.

The answer is Wash Your Hands. Over and over again, studies have shown that handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infection and illness–including foodborne illness.

Wash Your Hands the Right Way

When you wash your hands the right way, it takes only 20 seconds and requires only three ingredients: running water, soap, and something to dry your hands (a clean towel or air).

Here’s how to do it:

Wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.

Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

Continue rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.

Rinse your hands well under running water.

Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry.

And here’s when to do it:

Before, during, and after preparing food

Before eating food

After using the toilet

After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet

Before and after caring for someone who is sick

After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing

After touching an animal or animal waste

After touching garbage

Before and after treating a cut or wound

What About Hand Sanitizers?

Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce the number of germs on them. But, if soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer.

Important: Hand sanitizers are not effective if your hands are visibly dirty.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs.

Always use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Here’s how to use hand sanitizer properly:

Apply the product to the palm of one hand.

Rub your hands together.

Rub the product over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry.

For more information on handwashing, check out these resources:

Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives

CDC Kidtastics Podcast: All You Have to Do Is Wash Your Hands

Video: Put Your Hands Together


This post, by Michael J. Beach, PhD, Associate Director for Healthy Water and Chief, Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, CDC, first appeared on FoodSafety.gov on Jan. 11, 2011