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The Long, Uncomfortable Journey to Really Washing My Hands for the First Time

According to new research, length of wash plays a more significant role in hand cleanliness than water temperature.

Is there anything in the world simpler than washing your hands? You just turn on the hot water, get some soap, and clean. Alas, nothing in science is simple. For years, researchers believed the key to effective hand washing was water temperature, which led to the FDA’s requirement that all restaurants sport sinks capable of reaching a temperature of at least 100°F. But a new study suggests temperature matters much less than the amount of time you spend washing, and that increasing your wash time by even 10 seconds can greatly decrease hand bacteria.

The new findings shook me to my core. I simply could not believe that—like using a can opener and rollerblading—hand washing was among the list of routine activities that I didn’t know how to do. But I wanted learn the proper hand sanitation techniques, so I carefully read the study’s instructions and ran off to my bathroom sink. I turned on the water and prepared for the recommended 20 long, but potentially life-changing, seconds of hard scrubbing.

But how the hell was I supposed to know whether I had been washing for 20 seconds, two seconds, or several minutes? Count in my head? I’m bored and distracted just thinking about it. Fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a recommendation—sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice as you lather. So I placed my hands in the frigid water, applied soap, and began to sing “Happy Birthday” twice in a row to myself in the mirror.

What did I learn? That 20 seconds might sound like a short amount of time but it’s honestly a lot longer than you think. Still, staring at yourself in the mirror while wishing yourself a Happy Birthday six times is now a strange but not unwelcome addition to my morning ritual. All in all, it took a total of about 10 minutes to relearn washing my hands. Most importantly, my hands really do feel cleaner, and I learned something new about science.

Now if I could only figure out how the hell to work that can opener…