A representation of Psyche, taken from the BPS logo

The psychology of handwashing

Behaviours to keep yourself, your family, and your community safe

06 August 2020

The World Health Organisation states that cleaning hands in the right way, at the right times, is one of the most important things we can all do to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Learn how to clean your hands

You will have heard that you should clean your hands with soap and water or a hand gel containing at least 60% alcohol for over 20 seconds (or singing 'happy birthday' twice). If you've washed your hands, you should dry them on a clean cloth or paper towel.

How you do it is very important in order to cover all areas of your hands.

Imagine that your hands are covered, every square inch, with germs and the soap is red paint. You want to make sure you get the paint all over your hands, fingers, thumb, nails and wrists, so all of your skin and nails are covered in paint, then wash it all off. The paint signifies how effectively you will be removing the germs on your hands, the areas that are still red, are not clean!

Learn when to clean your hands

You will have heard people saying you should clean your hands frequently but what does that actually mean? Learn to clean your hands at the right times.

There are key moments when we might need to clean your hands. Getting these times right is really important to protect you and your community.

These an be grouped as Home MomentsPublic Moments and Personal Moments.

Be prepared

Effective hand hygiene takes forward thinking. Think about what you need and what you could put in key places in your home and workplace to make it easier and to prompt or help you to keep your hand clean, at the right moments, e.g., putting hand gel by the front door. 

How could you remind yourself and those you might live or work with? How could you give praise when hands are cleaned at the right times and gentle reminders when they are not? If you live with others, start a competition! If you are going out to a new place, do you know where you can clean your hands? If not, take some alcohol-based hand gel in case there's no sinks, soap and water or hand sanitizer available.

Create a plan

Make 'If-Then' plans. Write them down and revisit them when you are just about to go out. "If I pick up my keys, then I will check I have hand gel in my bag/pocket."

"If I leave my home, then I will take hand gel with me."

"If I am about to touch a surface in a public space, then I will use my hand gel before."

"If I have touched a surface in  a public space, then I will use my hand gel after."

"If I am entering my home, then I will head straight to the sink and wash my hands with soap and water before touching anything else."

"If I sneeze or cough and forget to use my elbow, then I will wash my hands or use my hand gel straight away."​​​​​

Make a commitment

Make a commitment to cleaning your hands for the good of yourself, your family, your community and your country. This can involve writing a commitment down, posting on social media, or telling friends and family about what you are committing to. Commitments usually starts with "I will..." "I will follow effective hand hygiene action, cleaning my hands well, at the right times, to protect myself, my family and my community." 

Educate, influence and be kind

Teach your friends and family about good hand hygiene, e.g. by sharing this on social media and when you talk to them. Suggest you become the hand hygiene champion in your family and consider how you will be kind and positive about those who get hand hygiene action correct, but also those who may forget to clean their hands, knowing how easy it is to forget.  You could be a role model in your community. How and when you clean your hands at home and when you are out in public spaces can influence, encourage and remind other people to do the same. Try forwarding this, and your own commitment, to five of your friends or family.

Read the full document on how to encourage hand hygiene in the community

Produced by the BPS Behavioural Science and Disease Prevention Taskforce:

Lucie Byrne-Davis (document lead), Angel Chater (taskforce lead), Maddy Arden, Chris Armitage, Paul Chadwick, John Drury, Tracy Epton, Jo Hart, Atiya Kamal, Lesley Lewis, Emily McBride, Daryl O'Connor, Saskia Perriard-Abdoh, Gillian Shorter, Vivian Swanson, Ellie Whittaker; with Directors of S3 Global, Consultants to the World Health Organisation in hand hygiene: Claire Kilpatrick and Jules Storr.