How Bad Is It to Not Wash Your Hands After Using the Bathroom?

It's worth the 20 to 30 seconds of scrubbing.

It seems like washing your hands after using the bathroom should be a given, but that (grossly) might not always be the case. Some research has found that only 31 percent of men and 65 percent of women washed their hands after using a public restroom, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. And what about when you’re at home? How bad is it to not wash your hands after using the bathroom in your own house? Here’s what doctors want you to know about this germ-spreading habit you should give up.

Washing your hands is safe and effective

Hand hygiene is the single most effective way to avoid spreading infections and to protect yourself and others, according to Ranekka Dean, PhD, the Director of Infection Control at NYU Winthrop Hospital on Long Island. Many diseases spread if you don’t properly wash your hands, especially after using the bathroom. This includes norovirus, C. diff, and E. coli since they cause diarrhea which could get onto your hands when you use the bathroom, Dr. Dean says. (Here are 7 things that could happen if you don’t wash your hands.)

What’s the worst-case scenario if you don’t wash your hands?

If you don’t wash your hands after using the bathroom, the worst-case scenario is spreading germs and putting yourself and others at risk. “We wash hands for the same reason we flush a toilet,” says Bruce Hirsch, MD, the attending physician for infectious diseases at Northwell Health. Even the healthiest people have dangerous germs in their stools, Dr. Hirsch says. After going to the bathroom, these germs get on our hands and anything we touch. So any doorknob, piece of furniture, or kitchen utensil you touch after not washing your hands post-bathroom has these germs as well, according to Dr. Hirsch.

Plus, Dr. Dean says you could even spread infections to yourself by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands. If you’re still not convinced to wash your hands, note that doing so reduces the number of people who get diarrhea and colds by 31 and 21 percent, respectively, per the CDC. And even if your hands don’t come into direct contact with pee or poop, flushing a toilet without closing the lid spreads pathogens that could survive on bathroom surfaces for months, according to research in the American Journal of Infection Control. Did you touch a surface in your bathroom? Then it’s time to wash your hands, too.

Keep these tips in mind when you wash your hands

Use plenty of running water, a generous amount of soap, and scrub away. Or as Dr. Hirsch says, “Wash your hands like you mean it!” Make sure you lather your hands and wash the back of the hands, between the fingers, and under the nails, Dr. Dean recommends. Don’t skimp on how long you lather, either. The CDC recommends scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds, roughly the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, Dr. Dean says. It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to washing your hands. So take the time to sanitize, and you and those around you will be healthier because of it, Dr. Hirsch says. Next, check out the ways you’re probably washing your hands wrong.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Jessica Wu, MD, on July 02, 2020

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is an associate editor at The Healthy and a former assistant staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her work has appeared online at the Food Network and Well + Good and in print at Westchester Magazine, and more. When she's not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts, and liking one too many astrology memes.