Handwashing How-To and How-Not-To

Handwashing How-To and How-Not-To

And now we come to that time of year where students and teachers dive headlong into those overflowing human petri dishes we call “schools.”

My kids have brought home some real winners through the years. Colds, flus, and stomach bugs, of course. But then there’s the phalanx of conjunctivitis, strep throat, inexplicable fevers, Hand-Foot-Mouth and Fifth Disease. (Yes, that’s what it’s called. I’m not kidding. Look it up.) Nothing deadly, but certainly unpleasant.

To rehash some old news here, let me remind you that frequent handwashing with regular soap and water is the single best defense against the spread of germs. The mundane act of handwashing has been making headlines lately because the FDA just banned the ubiquitous ingredient Triclosan in antibacterial soaps. (Soap is all you need anyway.) Which takes us back to my point:

Frequent handwashing with regular soap and water is the single best defense against the spread of germs.

handwashing-edited Handwashing How-To and How-Not-To

So, when you find your precious littles are catching every passing bug (“But Mommy, I thought you wanted us to share!”) – and before you dose them with latest miracle vitamin – check out how often and how well they are washing their hands.

Four Handwashing Fumbles

The H-2-Only

Handwashing How-To and How-Not-To

Otherwise known as the no-soap wash. I say “wash” in the loosest sense of the word because this is, in fact, a rinse. Water alone does not grab germs, and it cannot penetrate grease. The only effect it might possibly have is to knock the dirt off by force.

The Flash Wash

Handwashing How-To and How-Not-To

This is the “blink and you might miss it” wash where soap touches the hands for the briefest of moments before getting rinsed off. Soap needs a few moments to do its job – grabbing dirt, grime, and germs – and it must touch all parts of the hand to do so.

The Finger Free

Handwashing How-To and How-Not-To

This one is a toddler specialty, where soap gets rubbed around the palms and maybe the backs of the hands, but not the all-important fingers. Our fingertips touch surfaces, friends, food and our own mouths, noses, and eyes the most. Handwashing must include a thorough scrub of the fingers, fingertips, and under the fingernails. According to the FDA , “The fingernails and surrounding areas are often the most contaminated parts of the hand.

The Why Bother

Handwashing How-To and How-Not-To

Even if you wash your hands well, but then touch the faucet, the paper towel lever, the dryer button, the light switch, or the door handle, you might as well have licked your hands clean. Instead, do all this with the back of your hand, your less dominant hand, your least used fingers, your elbow, or with a paper towel in between. Be creative.

In situations with cloth towels, the towel is only as clean as everyone else who has used it. Is it trustworthy?

Here’s a snazzy summary put together by Rachel, one of our awesome graphic designers:

Handwashing How-To and How-Not-To

Click on this graphic reminder to download, print, & display next to the sink!

Review this with yourself, with your live-withs, your kids, your friends, your friends’ kids, and your kids’ friends.

This may sound like a hassle, but think of all the time, money, and peace of mind you’ll preserve in not missing work, visiting the doctor, caring for the sick, getting sick yourself, cleaning the house extra, completing missed classwork and missed work work.

I can already hear the cherubic voices, “But that’s NO FUN!!” Yeah, well, being sick is even less fun.

Further reading

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Ronnie says:

Hi Lisa,

I love the smell of the Sal Suds and wanted to get your thoughts on using it as a foaming hand soap. I currently use the unscented Dr. Bronner is my foaming soap dispenser, but wanted to have pine scented option. My concern is that Sal Suds is not meant to be used on the body. Thanks for your feedback.

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Ronnie – While we don’t recommend Sal Suds for the body, you’ll find very similar ingredients in other marketed hand soaps. However, we think that the ingredients are too drying on the skin since they are so very good at picking up oils. There’s nothing more problematic than potential dryness. Some folks like making a foaming soap with it even for use with dishes. Because Sal Suds is more concentrated than the Castile, you only need half as much. So that’s 1 part Sal Suds for 5 or 6 parts water. Another option is to use the Unscented Castile and add your own fir and spruce essential oils.

Lisa says:

Hi Lisa, my name is Lisa also! 🙂 I have been using your castile soap (baby unscented) for a while. However, having a toddler I am constantly washing my hands and they are drying out and cracking. I always make sure to dilute the castile soap following your dilution recommendation. I have found a couple recipes which recommend adding a small amount of Vitamin E oil for added moisture to the castile soap. Is this alright to do?? Applying lotion countless times a day doesn’t work for me, since I wash so often, it’s never on long enough to benefit. My skin is so sensitive which is why I opt for the baby unscented as well. Therefor I was going to try adding some Vitamin E to the soap to see if it helps. Would love your opinion and if so.. how much should I add? Thanks much for your time.

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Lisa – How well I remember those days of constant handwashing when caring for toddlers! Always wiping one end or the other. Adding vitamin e to the soap won’t help, because soap’s main goal in existence is to bond with oil. So the soap is just going to bond with that oil and not leave it available to moisturize your hands. Other than regular lotion, put your attention on overnight hand care. Really go deep right before bed with an exfoliation – like the Coconut Sugar Scrub and then slather on either the unscented Magic Balm, or a lotion of your choice. Wear gloves or socks on your hands if you can stand to while you sleep.

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Kyle- Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap and Sal Suds are effective cleaners but they are not disinfectants because they do not contain a pesticide and do not kill. Instead our products remove germs, dirt and grime from surfaces (including hands!). Soaps and detergents works by grabbing on to germs, dirt and grime and washing them away and leaving clean surfaces behind. The recommendations for handwashing in light of COVID-19 are universally consistent: the best prevention is to wash hands frequently with soap and water. Here’s an article I wrote last year on why, “Ditch the Antibacterial: Soap is All You Need.” To help prevent the spread of germs on household surfaces, the CDC recommends a two-step process of cleaning then disinfecting. For cleaning, they recommend a general household cleaner or detergent and water prior to the second step of disinfection. Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soaps and Sal Suds Biodegradable Cleaner can be made into a household cleaning spray by combining ¼ c. of the Castile OR 1 Tbsp. of the Sal Suds in 1 qt. of water in a spray bottle, with an optional 20 drops of Tea Tree essential oil. For more information on the CDC’s recommended disinfectants and more advice on household preparedness, please visit

Kyle says:

Thanks for the great info! I should have specified I was asking about hands only. As you mentioned, the CDC says soap and water. Would your Organic Sugar Soap be ok to use for the purpose of very frequent hand washing to help prevent infection? Also, what do you think of using the magic balm overnight on hands to help moisture dry hands from frequent hand washing? Thanks!!

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Kyle- All soaps, including the Organic Sugar Soap, work by latching on to dirt, grime and germs and then washing them away, reducing the risk of catching or spreading germs. It takes 20 seconds for soap to grab onto germs, which is why the CDC recommends washing hands for at least that long. Frequent hand washing certainly does a number on one’s hands. Some of the essential oils in our soaps, such as Peppermint can be more drying than others. Opt for a more gentle scent or Unscented, which has no essential oils. For added moisture from the Unscented Magic Balm, apply to hands, then cover with socks or mittens overnight (as strange as that sounds) to lock in moisture.

Judith says:

On the question of the drying effect of frequent hand-washing, I use shea butter on my hands after every single hand-washing. If I don’t I can feel my skin hurt later. Since I do, I never have to worry about moisturizing or dry hands.

Margaret says:

I’m a caregiver and I wash my hands frequently. I use Dr Bonners liquid soap made with hemp oil. I find that my hands are never dry and always feel soft and comfortable. It amazes me but it’s true!

Walter H Crompton jr says:

It seems like your recommendations are loaded with overstatement, and also fail to discuss the dangers of excessive soapy washing. ANY washjng is better than none, right? Washing with soap removes not only soiling, but also essential skin oils. I bet that dry, cracked skin is actually an invitation for germs and other problems, but do not have any data. Is there any hard data to support the claims that people who wash with soap for the magic 20 seconds really have a better long-term outcome? I fear that you are biased and not digging deeply enough.

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Walter – Thanks for writing. It’s great to see that you take the time to think through what you read. There certainly is a lot of overstatement swirling around these days. You are absolutely right than any form of washing is better than none. There are studies that show that a rinse with plain water is better than nothing, and that any amount of soap is better than none, and that any duration of wash time is better than none. The 20 second recommendation is an ideal. If it were merely media or soap manufacturers recommending it, I would agree it would be unsubstantiated or biased. However, it is a consistent recommendation across world health groups – CDC, WHO, FDA, UNICEF, even the Global Handwashing Partnership. You might find this study to be helpful: Efficacy of Handwashing Duration and Drying Methods. You are also exactly right that cracked hands invite infection. It is important to maintain good skin health as this is the first line of defense against keeping bacteria or viruses out of our bodies. If your hands are getting dried out, apply a balm or moisturizer.

Here’s some other relevant research: The Effect of Handwashing at Recommended Times with Water Alone and With Soap
The effect of handwashing with water or soap on bacterial contamination of hands.

Margaret Schermerhorn says:

I have used Dr Bronner’s peppermint hemp oil soap for years and wash very frequently throughout the day. I have never had a problem with dry, chapped, or cracking skin, which I have attributed to the hemp oil base in your soap. It seems perfect. By the way, I wrote to Trader Joe’s to recommend they make a large purchase from your company for the tiny bottles to sell loose to their customers for a pocket version of your perfect soap!!

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Margaret- It’s great to hear our soaps keep dry, chapped hands at bay for you!

Karey says:

Just to be clear, when using a regular soap dispenser (not foaming), the castile soaps should not be diluted, right?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Karey- We don’t recommend using the Castile soap in a non-foaming pump dispenser, as the soap can clog and squirt out in unexpected directions, even if diluted. It works fantastically in foaming pump dispenser at a ratio of 1 part soap to 3 parts water.

Morgan Warren says:

Can you talk about the effectiveness of your soaps for hand washing and cleaning as well in light of the coronovirus? The FDA is suggesting products like Clorox and Lysol.

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Morgan – You may be the first to ask, but you represent hundreds more who want to know. The recommendations for handwashing in light of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) are universally consistent: the best prevention is to wash hands frequently with soap and water. Here’s an article I wrote last year on why, “Ditch the Antibacterial: Soap is All You Need.” Hand sanitizer is only a second recommendation. We should be seeing soaring soap sales instead of soaring hand sanitizer sales. For housecleaning, the CDC has recommended in several places – such as Prevention & Treatment and Get Your Household Ready for COVID-19 – a two-step cleaning regimen. First, wash surfaces with a regular household cleaner or detergent and second, to disinfect using and EPA-approved disinfectant. (Disinfectants are products designed for hard surfaces that contain pesticides, which the EPA regulates.) What I am sensing, though, is that people are not seeing this two-part recommendation. They are jumping straight to the disinfect step. However, without the first step of cleaning, there still will be grime and debris leaving surfaces dirty, harboring germs, and attracting more. Disinfecting alone doesn’t remove that-all disinfectants do is kill germs. Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soaps and Sal Suds make a great All-Purpose Housecleaning spray to use for the first step of cleaning surfaces: 1/4 c. Castile OR 1 Tbsp. Sal Suds in a quart of water, (optional) 20 drops Tea Tree Essential Oil.

I don’t think you meant this, but just to be clear for all readers, do not use Clorox or Lysol products on your hands. Please read all labels and take great care if using products with hazard warnings.

Suzanne says:

We learned in nutrition school that singing two choruses of Happy Birthday is the length of time you should wash your hands, easier than counting twenty seconds.

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Suzanne- That’s an excellent tip – especially for kids. Washing hands for 20 seconds, as recommended by the CDC, isn’t a random number either. It’s overwhelmingly researched. That’s the amount of time soap molecules need to grab on to grime and germs before being rinsed off (or wiped off, in the case of fabrics and counters).

Cathy says:

When using a foaming soap dispenser with Dr Bronner’s Castile Soap and water, what is the “shelf life” of the mixture once the soap is mixed with water? I believe there are no preservatives in the soap so I’m guessing it doesn’t last super long once mixing it with water without developing bacteria or something growing in the soap?
Can you comment?
Also, I have a Berkey water filter and would like to use that water in the foaming soap dispenser. Is that still ok without the soap mixture developing bacteria or something else, etc? OR must I use distilled water?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Cathy- Our Castile soap is naturally preserved because of its alkalinity, and we also add Tocopherols (vitamin E) as an extra preservative. Certainly, when you dilute the soap, you are diluting the preservative. The issue is that bacteria in the water might eventually get into the solution and there wouldn’t be enough preservative to combat it. I’m not familiar with a Berkey water filter specifically, but that would likely filter out some bacteria. After diluting the soaps with water, the typical shelf life would be about a month. Follow your nose – if it is smelling off, then dump and remake. If you find you don’t go through it fast enough, mix-up a smaller batch.

Andrew Bodine says:

I have 8 foaming soap dispensers and I like to wait until I’m using the last one and then I will refill the 7 of them so they are ready to go when the 8th one runs out. I hold off on adding the water until I actually need to use it and put it on the sink. That way the soap in preserved and there isn’t any reason why you need to add water before that anyways. We use soap a lot in my house so we usually don’t have issues with soap going “bad” once water is added. I also have a Berkey and use that water for all of my soap as well as vegetable glycerin, avocado or almond oil and extra essential oils if needed.

My Hand Sanitizer – Armed and Ready says:

[…] to hand sanitizer, so I want you to read this disclaimer:  Hand sanitizer does not replace handwashing with soap and water if available.  Soap and water is more effective and if it is feasible to wash with soap and water, […]

Ditch the Antibacterial: Soap is All You Need says:

[…] other (otherwise known as “cold and flu season”), it becomes increasingly imperative that we wash our hands with soap and water.  Early and often.  And teach our children to do the same.  Let me say this very […]

Yvette says:

Is dr bronners lavender soap, when diluted, antibacterial? And I mean, can I use that as my soap when washing after handling raw chicken and be confident I won’t catch salmonella?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Yvette – The term “disinfectant” means that the product must kill 99% of germs. The term “antibacterial” means that the product must kill 99.9% of germs. Dr. Bronner’s soap (Castile soap and Sal Suds) is part of the “disinfectant” category. Soap works by removing. It latches on to dirt, grime, germs, etc. and takes them away. The only thing that kills bacteria is a pesticide, and soap is not a pesticide. That means the short answer is, no, soap will not kill bacteria or anything else. Soap eliminates it, though.

Jane says:

Lisa, fabulous site, thank you!
I use a lot of homemade skincare, and after applying my very thick and oil-rich body butter, it’s almost impossible to wash my hands using castille soap. No matter how much I use, it forms a thick white scum on my hands. Unfortunately the sugar soap is pricier than our budget can deal with, and doesn’t come in my preferred orange scent.
Any tips for how to get a better handwash? We’re in a hard water area so I need to add a little bicarb to my shampoo. Would that also work with handwash?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Jane – The Castile soap is good at breaking up oils, so try increasing your concentration and/or adding a little bicarb as you suggest. The thick white scum makes me wonder if your skincare product has a lot of acid in it, such as lemon juice, in which case the soap could be becoming unsaponified.

Jane says:

Thanks for the reply, Lisa! The main issue seems to be after applying my magnesium body butter. I don’t think there’s anything acidic in it. I’ll try your suggestions – dilute the soap less and add some bicarb.


Hi which Castile soap do you recommend for hand washing? Is it better to delute, it if so with what? Right now I have lavender with distilled water and I think tea tree oil a recipe I found online. But I find it’s too watery.

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Lizette – All the Castile soaps have the same soap base, but vary only in the essential oil used. So, you can pick the one you like best. I happen to use Citrus most of the time. For pumps, only foaming pumps work well with the castile soap. Dilute at a ratio of 1:3.

Kate LADEBU says:

Hi there. I am looking to add an essential oil to the baby unscented for my kids hands in a foaming soap dispenser. I have the 3:1 ratio but how much essential oil do you recommend?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Kate – As you probably know, essential oils can be pretty potent, and the type of essential oil matters greatly. Start with about 5 drops and see if you like the smell, then increase it to your liking.

Sara says:

It is extremely important to hand hygiene, even more at this time

Dee says:

Hello! Really great article, tips and comments.

I have a question about using the Foaming Soap dispensars. I used to use them but found it difficult to clean and disinfect the area just under the pump (the place where you can see the soap/water mix before it comes out of the pump). It can get really funky in there after a while. I’ve tried hot water, alcohol, etc. but the eventually “etch” the plastic housing.

Here’s my other concern regarding this: on Robert Tisserand’s website, it’s been reported (by Ginger L. More) that once you introduce water to mixtures, microbes supposedly begin to form in the mixtures (whether with liquid soaps, or DIY sprays, etc.).

If this may be the case, can you recommend some easy-to-clean foaming soap dispensers? I haven’t had success with the different ones I’ve purchased.


Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Dee – I’m glad you found it helpful. I myself am still looking for the foaming pump. Either they seem to break quickly, or they’re uncleanable, as you said. I don’t have a specific recommendation unfortunately.

Dee says:

Hi, Lisa.

Thanks for your reply.

No problem! If I happen to get lucky and find one that’s good, I’ll try to remember to post it here. 🙂

Take care!

Annika Greatwich says:

I have awfully dry and sensitive skin – so I love the castile soap because it’s nice and gentle. But to make it extra moisturising can I add olive (or some other moisturising oil e.g. almond or jojoba) to it? And also use as a body wash?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Annika – I get what you’re trying to do, but the problem is that adding oil directly to the soap is going to cause the soap molecules to bond with the oil and have two effects: first, the soap molecules are going to stick to the oil molecules and whisk them off your skin not leaving any behind to moisturize, and secondly, the soap will be so tied up with the oil that it won’t be available to clean the grime off of you. All that being said, many people do this and like it. I’ve also heard of adding coconut milk to the soap. A better bet though is to use our Sugar Soaps which are naturally more moisturizing and fantastic for sensitive skin, or follow up a castile wash with a light moisturizer, such as jojoba, or coconut oil. Our Lavender Coconut lotion makes a great all over moisturizer. You can definitely use any of our soaps for a body wash.

Rolf Fleischmann says:

A quick question, should I dilute the soap before frequent hand washing. I work a long day (14-15 hours) and I probably wash my hands 8-10 times throughout.

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Rolf – You can use a couple drops straight from the bottle or you can dilute it 1:3 in a foaming pump. Whichever works best for you.

Margaret Schermerhorn says:

Tiny meditations.. because I need to find time to meditate I began a habit that goes back many years. When I wash my hands, I do a lovely meditation that gives me time to be thorough with my Dr.Bronners and always leaves me with a great feeling and a smile. Since I have to do this many times a day, a big plus in my daily state-of-mind! Huge respect for Dr.Bronner’s wonderful hemp oil soap I can easily get at any visit to Trader Joe’s. I’m 69 years old and I do caregiving for an 88-year-old lady who I introduced to the product. Now it’s in dispensers all over her house!

scottsasonic says:

extra dirty hands, a capful of mild topical H202 with 2 drops (yes literally 2 tiny drops) of Bronners rub int to hands before water for 10 seconds then rinse. No need for anti-bacterial agent chemicals EVER.

Jennifer says:

What about a regular soap recipe for liquid soap in a pump container?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Jennifer – Our liquid castile soaps do not work well in regular pump dispensers. They inevitably clog the pump and squirt out sideways in the process. If you want to use a regular pump, choose our Organic Sugar Soaps instead. Or for our liquid castile, use a foaming pump dispenser at a ratio of 1 part soap to 3 parts water.

json formatter online says:

Great post. It’s really helpful to us. Thanks for sharing!

Meghann says:

Does anyone have a soap recipe that can be used in a foaming container by the sink? I am brand new and am in need of some direction. Thank you~!

Lisa Bronner says:

Diluting the soap at a ratio of 1:3 works great for most foaming pumps. Feel free to adjust that to your preferences.

Angie says:

When my girls were little, we turned hand washing into a game. We had bubble contests to see who could make the most bubbles and who could get the bubbles to cover every part of their hands. As they grew up, I often heard other moms comment on how well my girls washed their hands while at their friends’ houses on play dates. I’m not above some good old fashioned mama manipulation!

Ginger Clemence says:

Thank you! And it wouldn’t hurt to make sure all of the adults are washing their hands properly too.

Lynn B says:

I highly recommend the World Health Organization poster that shows you how to wash your hands. All you have do is search online for hand washing guide. I custom printed it by enlarging it to 140% and it now fills an 8.5″ by 11″ paper. The pictures are very specific as to how to hold and move your hands to get a thorough washing. Even if children get it only half right it will probably be so much better than what they are doing now.

About Lisa Bronner

My grandfather was Dr. Bronner, my family makes soap, and I share ways to use it plus tips on greener living.

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