Handwashing to Prevent Illness at School

Proper handwashing is the number one way to keep germs from spreading. Many studies have shown that handwashing education and proper handwashing with soap reduce the transmission of illness. One study reported reduced absenteeism due to gastrointestinal illness in schoolchildren by 29-57%.

During common daily activities, hands get contaminated with germs that cause respiratory, gastrointestinal or other illnesses. Germs get on hands from activities like using the bathroom, changing a diaper, handling raw meat, playing with animals or cleaning up after them. A single gram of human feces (poop) — which is about the weight of a paper clip — can contain one trillion germs. When these germs get onto hands and are not washed off, they can be passed from person to person and make people sick. Germs can get on hands when people touch things that have been contaminated. For example, touching an object that was coughed or sneezed on or touched by another contaminated object.

Teach Students the Right Way to Wash Hands

Wash Hands Often

It is important to wash hands often because people may have germs on their hands then touch their eyes, nose, and mouth without even realizing it. Provide time needed for all students and staff to wash hands frequently, especially:

Choose Handwashing Instead of Hand Sanitizer

Hand sanitizers are not a substitute for proper handwashing. Hand Sanitizers aren't effective when hands are dirty or greasy. Proper handwashing with soap and water removes germs and dirt. Scrubbing and rinsing are necessary to wash off the dirt and germs. Application of hand sanitizers typically doesn't include the important scrubbing, rinsing, and drying steps. Hand sanitizers have very limited ability to kill even flu viruses and they don't kill germs like norovirus, which causes gastrointestinal illness. When there is no access to a sink, such as on a field trip, you can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers (at least 60% alcohol, dye-free and fragrance-free), but rub a generous amount and thoroughly wet the skin. Be aware that some people may have a sensitivity reaction since hand sanitizers are a chemical.

Questions and Answers

How effective is handwashing at reducing illness?

Many studies cited on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website have shown that handwashing education and access to soap in schools can help improve attendance. Handwashing education in the community:

Why use plain soap for handwashing?

Antibacterial ingredients, in particular triclosan and quaternary ammonia compounds (quats), only kill a few types of germs and are unnecessary when washing hands. It doesn't matter if germs are alive or dead when they are washed down the drain.

What about non-alcohol hand sanitizers?

The CDC only recommends hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol. Non-alcohol ones are even less effective than alcohol hand sanitizers and many can cause sensitivity reactions.

Why is it important to use fragrance-free products in school?

Fragrance is one of the most frequently identified allergens, can irritate the respiratory system, cause headaches, and exacerbate asthma.

More Resources

CDC Handwashing Resources - Health promotions materials (posters, fact sheets, videos), training and education, show me the science, and more.

Handwashing Signs - Signs for the public and food workers.