Photography: a person creams their hand.
Healthy hands

Proper hand hygiene: The facts

Illustration of two hands.
On May 5th, the World Health Organization WHO celebrates World Hand Hygiene Day. This is a good occasion to take a closer look at hand hygiene and hand care. After all, our hands are our most important tool. We brush our teeth with them, write important messages, and stroke our pets. Most of the time, we use our hands without thinking about it. In order to keep them healthy, however, we need to take care of them. But what is proper hand care?
We touch many surfaces every day, which makes proper hand hygiene crucial. However, frequent washing can also dry out and crack the skin. Injured skin, in turn, cannot be sufficiently disinfected. In this article we will find out how to prevent this and take good care of dry, damaged skin.

The skin: Structure, acid mantle and pH value

With a surface area of around 1.8 square metres, the skin is the largest human organ. Of course, that's not the only exciting thing about it. The skin has a wide range of useful functions. It protects the body from heat, light, injuries, and infections. Through sweating, the skin also regulates our body temperature, stores water and fat, and produces vitamin D.

On the top layer of our skin, the epidermis, there is a kind of further protective layer that lies on top of our skin like an extremely thin film: the protective acid mantle. This mantle is, as the name suggests, slightly acidic. A correct pH value is essential for the skin; the best value lies between 4.8 and 5.5.

However, frequent hand washing can destroy this natural protection. If the pH value rises into the alkaline range, important skin lipids, which are essential for the acid mantle, can no longer develop. What remains is dry, itchy skin that tends to redden and is more susceptible to cracks and infections. In this case, bacteria, fungi, and viruses can penetrate the small openings in the skin more easily and cause inflammation. The fingernails can also be affected. To counteract injuries to the hands and prevent infections, keep various things in mind when washing your hands. (1,2,3,4)

Graphic of a pH scale showing acidic, neutral, and alkaline sections.
A pH scale ranges from acidic to neutral to alkaline.

Washing your hands properly

Handwashing is and remains one of the most important means of breaking chains of infection. However, washing them too often can also dry them out. Check the following overview of the most important situations to wash your hands:

It’s best to wash your hands after:

  • returning home
  • using the toilet
  • blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • contact with waste
  • contact with animals or animal food

It’s best to wash your hands before:

  • eating
  • putting on make-up and lotion

It’s best to wash your hands both before and after:

  • cooking and preparing food
  • contact with sick people
  • treating wounds
Photo of a wooden board and someone cutting meat.
You should wash your hands before and after preparing meat.

The right way to wash

How you wash your hands is also crucial. Here, we summarize the most important handwashing steps:

  1. Moisten your hands with water. Water that’s too hot can irritate and dry out your skin and should therefore be lukewarm at most.
  2. Lather your hands thoroughly. This includes the palms, backs of the hands, fingertips, and spaces between the fingers. Don't forget your fingernails and nail folds, either. Press your fingers together, including your thumbs, and move your fingertips back and forth in the middle of the other palm.
  3. Thorough handwashing takes 20 to 30 seconds. So rub all areas of your hands thoroughly for this time.
  4. Afterwards, rinse your hands completely. If possible, don’t touch the water tap again due to the germs that can be found here. If you can, use a dry towel to turn off the faucet.
  5. Finally, dry your hands properly, and don’t forget the spaces between your fingers. Take enough time for this as well. (5) Artificial fingernails are a special case. They can remain a hygienic risk factor even after proper washing, as moisture is retained longer in the barely visible cracks in the plastic. (6)
Graphic of black hands soaping with an indication: 20 seconds.
Thorough handwashing takes between 20 and 30 seconds.

Choosing the right handwashing products

Now that we know when and how handwashing makes sense, let's discuss products. There are a few things to consider when choosing the right items. Natural soaps, for example, are usually made on a plant or animal fat basis. Industrial soaps, on the other hand, often include other ingredients such as dyes, fragrances, or preservatives. These ingredients can unnecessarily irritate sensitive skin.

In principle, soaps should be alkaline with a pH value of 8 to 11. This means that in the short term, they can destroy the "good" skin bacteria. This is not a major problem with healthy skin, as the pH value returns to a normal level after a few hours. However, excessive soap usage can damage the skin's natural barrier, making it easier for eczema, contact allergies, and irritation to develop. Some cleansers, however, have a skin-friendly pH value. (7)

HARTMANN, the company behind Sterillium®, offers various wash lotions that clean the hands both thoroughly and gently. Mild lotions such as Sterillium® Protect & Care Soap or Baktolin® pure are dermatologically tested, have a skin-friendly pH value of 5.5 and do not contain any dyes or perfumes. The skin-friendly products can have a positive effect on the skin of those who must wash their hands frequently, like doctors and nurses.

A hand holding a bar of soap.
Solid soap, liquid soap, or lotion? Some products are gentler on the skin than others.

Hand hygiene: Washing or disinfecting?

Some situations may only require washing your hands. Others may require disinfecting them. In many situations at home or with friends, for example, washing is quite sufficient.

However, disinfecting your hands makes sense if you encounter sick people, care for relatives, or if your immune system is weakened. It also helps to disinfect your hands in public places such as the subway or the supermarket. This is even more important if you don't have an option to wash your hands. During a flu epidemic or pandemic, it may also be better to disinfect your hands more frequently.

The best way to do this is to use a hand disinfectant, whether in liquid, gel or wipe form, which, in addition to being effective, also contains skin care components, such as Sterillium® Protect & Care Disinfectant Gel Hands.

Disinfect your hands correctly

However, hand disinfection also requires correct application. You should consider the following things:

  • Make sure your hands are dry before you disinfect them.
  • Pour enough disinfectant into the palm of your hand. 2-3 strokes from the dispenser are usually enough.
  • Make sure to wet your entire hand with disinfectant.
  • Pay special attention to the fingertips, the thumbs and the spaces between the fingers.
  • Then rub the disinfectant in thoroughly for at least 30 seconds.
  • Keep your hands moist throughout the procedure.

Good to know: Hand hygiene includes not only hand disinfection, hand washing and care, but also the use of examination gloves, if necessary. This applies primarily to professional staff, but can also be relevant for family caregivers.

Only intact skin can be fully disinfected. Thus, make sure to lubricate your hands because this gives them back what soap or disinfectants without care components has removed – primarily fat. (8)

Someone uses disinfectant dispensers to disinfect their hands.
What’s better - disinfecting or washing? It depends.

Correct skin care: What to know

To protect your hands from drying out, take care of them. Especially if you wash them a lot. As mentioned above, first wash your hands with lukewarm water and then dry them. It is best to apply a light cream or lotion regularly during the day and a moisturizing cream in the evening before going to bed. If you have particularly dry hands, you can also wear thin cotton gloves over your creamed hands at night. It is also important to apply cream to the sensitive cuticles, as they can tear quickly. (9)

Baktolan® balm, a sister product from Sterillium®, for example, is an intensive water-in-oil balm for dry, sensitive skin that is suitable for daily use. Its ingredients include allantoin, vitamin E, and panthenol, which can soothe skin irritation and redness and stabilize the acid mantle. Those who prefer a lotion that is absorbed quickly can also choose Baktolan® lotion. And those who have particularly sensitive skin can also choose the product variants without perfumes, for example. (10)

Product packaging of Baktolan® balm
Baktolan® offers intensive care for sensitive skin.

Examination gloves: What´s important for the hands

In the health care sector, examination gloves are part of the daily routine of medical professionals in many situations – be it when taking blood samples or treating wounds. But wearing gloves is also important for people who care for others at home, whenever there is a risk of becoming infected or transmitting pathogens to others. Therefore, examination gloves also belong to the elements of hand hygiene.

However, if you have to wear gloves frequently, you should consider a few things to avoid putting your own skin under unnecessary strain. If you want to protect your hands, you should:

  • only put on gloves when your hands are completely dry
  • wear the gloves only for as long as is necessary for the job in question
  • disinfect your hands after taking off gloves
  • apply lotion regularly to your hands after you have finished working, taking off and disinfecting

And a small tip at the end: even with gloves on, pathogens can be spread. So, as long as you are wearing them, you should touch as little as possible to avoid unnecessarily contaminating surfaces with viruses or bacteria.

Hands putting on blue examination gloves.
Frequent wearing of gloves can lead to skin irritation. Proper care is therefore crucial.

Hand hygiene day: SAVE LIVES – Clean your Hands

Used at the right time and executed correctly, hand hygiene is an essential part of healthcare and saves millions of lives every year. That is why the World Health Organization (WHO) celebrates "World Hand Hygiene Day" every year on May 5th. The date was not chosen at random: The number 5 is meant to refer to the five fingers on each hand. Under the slogan "Act faster together. SAVE LIVES – Clean your Hands", the WHO wants to make people in the healthcare sector aware of the importance of clean hands and proper hand hygiene. It also aims to strengthen the collaboration among people and organizations to reduce infections and minimize the development of antibiotic resistance in healthcare settings. (11)

Hand hygiene concerns us all, and you now know how to do it properly - so join in!

#CleanHands #HandsHygiene #HandHygieneConcernsUsAll #MissionInfectionPrevention #AccelerateActionTogether

Official WHO poster promoting World Hand Hygiene Day. Graphic with several hands forming a circle together.
World Hand Hygiene Day is held each year to honour our hands.


[1] / Der Aufbau der Haut

[2] / Der Schutzmantel der Haut … schon gewusst?

[3] / Gesunde Hände trotz intensiver Hygiene

[4] / pH-Wert der Haut | Warum gesunde Haut leicht sauer ist

[5] | Händewaschen

[6] / so unhygienisch sind künstliche Fingernägel

[7] / Seife: Wie gut ist sie für die Haut?,seife186.html

[8] / Hand Protection and Care

[9] / Tipps für Handpflege für Pflegende

[10] / Disinfection

[11] / World Hand Hygiene Day

[12] / Sterillium® | More than outstanding hand disinfection

*Use disinfectants safely. Always read the label and product information before use.

Please amend in accordance with local requirements (e.g. law of advertising, product status, CLP labelling)

“HWG”-Pflichttexte for our Sterillium® range in English and German, also below in the footer.

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