WASHINGTON (CNN) – Handwashing seems pretty simple, but a recent study showed that people are still doing it wrong 97 percent of the time, which can lead to contamination of food and surfaces and result in foodborne illness.
The study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that most people failed to wash their hands and rub with soap for 20 seconds. That is the amount of time that is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says that washing for shorter periods results in fewer germs removed.
“Numerous” study participants also did not dry their hands with a clean towel.
The USDA stated that the study involved 383 people in six test kitchen facilities in the metro Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina and in rural Smithfield, North Carolina.
These poor handwashing practices led to cross-contamination, the study found. About half of the time, participants spread bacteria to spice containers while preparing hamburgers, and they spread bacteria to refrigerator handles 11 percent of the time.
“You can’t see, smell or feel bacteria,” explained Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy undersecretary for food safety at the USDA. “By simply washing your hands properly, you can protect your family and prevent that bacteria from contaminating your food and key areas in your kitchen.”
The results from the USDA’s study indicate that our handwashing habits may actually be getting worse. A prior study done in 2013 by Michigan State University found that only 5 percent of people washed their hands correctly.
So, what’s the right way to wash your hands? The CDC has some tips.
Step 1: Wet hands with clean, running water.
Step 2: After wetting hands with water, turn off the tap and apply soap.
Step 3: Lather hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of hands, between fingers and under fingernails.
Step 4: Scrub hands for at least 20 seconds. (Sing the alphabet once or “Happy Birthday” twice as a time estimate.)
Step 5: Rinse hands well under clean, running water.
Step 6: Dry hands with a clean towel, or air dry them.
A separate study released this month found that 49 of 100 towels showed the growth of bacteria that is normally found in or on the human body. That included E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. According to the study, bacteria were more likely to be found on wet towels and towels used for more than one purpose, such as wiping counter tops and drying hands. The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Mauritius.
Washing hands correctly is one of the easiest ways to avoid foodborne illnesses, which sickens 48 million Americans each year, according to CDC estimates. That results in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
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