Washing hands – a health fundamental

Washing hands is something we expect everyone to do, but surprisingly that’s not the case. It’s amazing how this one simple practice can reduce the transmission of disease.

Washing hands – a health fundamental by Nancy Knowlton

Some months ago we held a family and friends event in Quebec City. During one of the lunches, one of my great nieces who was 4 at the time asked if I could take her to the bathroom. Another little great niece came along, too. As is quite normal for us, it was a constant conversation during these experiences. I helped the girls wash their hands carefully, and we talked about the hygienic reasons for doing so thoroughly – nothing like a little reinforcement for lessons they have learned at home.

Hand-washing habits

As we finished I got them to take a piece of paper towel and told them how they needed to use it to open the door on the way out. They listened dutifully and did as instructed. Then they wanted to know what to do with the paper towel because there was no waste receptacle at the door. I told them to throw the paper on the floor, something that they had never been told before, and that this could help the hotel understand that they needed to place a garbage can there.

While it’s a matter of personal health to have good hand-washing habits, it’s also a matter of the health of those around us. I have seen too many people walk out of a bathroom without stopping to wash their hands, and that’s where my lesson to the girls came from. The poor habits of others could impact us, and that’s why we shouldn’t touch surfaces in a bathroom after washing our hands.

Good advice all around us

Whose parents haven’t told them to wash their hands every time that they use the bathroom? We’re told that this is the proper thing to do from an early age, and the message is reinforced positively by parents the world over. So everybody does it, right? Wrong. It’s obvious that this isn’t the case when we go into hospitals where bold reminders are posted for all to see – WASH YOUR HANDS. If health care workers don’t have this habit ingrained, what are the chances that the rest of us do? Similarly, we see reminders posted in restaurant bathrooms, presumably to give us confidence that the people handling our food have the right attention to healthy practices.

Benefits are irrefutable

Health organizations the world over know and promote the benefits of regular hand washing, not just after using the bathroom but in multiple circumstances and situations. The CDC has a great site that deals with the subject along with links to the underlying research studies. If we think that this is primarily a developing world issue where access to clean water and soap can be a challenge, think again. The studies are right here in the developed world and the conclusions about the benefits are irrefutable. If hand washing weren’t an issue, we wouldn’t see the level of research into its benefits nor the significant benefits that could be realized.

Tips and tricks

While some may think that antibacterial soap is needed, it actually is just good old-fashioned soap, with running water and a good technique that is required for hands to be appropriately sanitized. (The CDC offers advice and direction here as well.) In the absence of soap and water, an alcohol gel hand sanitizer can do the trick equally effectively.

Hand washing is a little detail that is so second nature to most of us that we don’t consciously think about it every day. But it’s a critical health fundamental for children and adults everywhere.


A few short weeks after I shared this life lesson with my niece’s daughter, I got a note from my niece telling me that her daughter had demonstrated the lesson to her in another bathroom when she dropped the paper towel at the door after using it to open the door. She faithfully reported to her mother that soon the restaurant would know that they needed to place a garbage can by the door. She went on to say that this was something that she had learned from me. Lesson heard and assimilated.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.