Coronavirus: How you might have been washing your hands incorrectly all this time

Virologist warns many people’s poor technique could leave virus on fingers and nails

Washing your hands properly is still the best way to slow down the spread of coronavirus. Conor Pope from The Irish Times looks at the common mistakes people make.

Are you washing your hands correctly? While most Irish people have become much more focused when it comes to hand hygiene in recent days as fears over the impact of coronavirus have grown, a leading virologist at Trinity College Dublin has warned that the techniques employed by many are still wrong and could leave viruses on hands and fingernails.

Using UV lights and a reflective cream to mimic the spread of a virus, the leader of the virology research group at Trinity, Dr Kim Roberts, was able to show just how hard it can be to clean human hands effectively.

When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they release droplets of saliva or mucus. These droplets can fall on people in the vicinity and can be either directly inhaled or picked up on the hands, then transferred when someone touches their face, causing infection.

That is why frequent hand-washing and the use of hand sanitisers are so important in combating the spread of the Covid-19.


Dr Roberts demonstrated how quick hand-washes were utterly useless and only served to spread the virus to arms and clothes, while even a relatively vigorous handwashing was only partially effective.

She reminded people that not only do they need to wash their hands “for a minimum of 20 seconds”, they also need to allow soap to do its work before rinsing hands in water.


She highlighted the need to ensure all parts of the hands including fingernails were washed with equal vigour.

“The soap is really important for breaking the outer surface of the virus,” she said. “It’s got this fatty membrane [and soap] can disrupt that membrane. The soap needs time to do that,” she said.

The HSE, the Department of Health and all medical experts have been reinforcing the need for people to take greater care with hand hygiene in order to curtail – in so far as is possible – the spread of coronavirus.

The results of a huge study in 2015, and published in the Lancet, proved the importance of hand washing to prevent the mass spread of an illness such as coronavirus.

Researchers at the University of Southampton randomly divided more than 20,000 people from GP lists into two groups, one of which was invited to visit a website designed to encourage people to wash their hands, while the other group didn’t get access.

While effects weren’t huge, with 10-20 per cent reductions in infections and consultations among the former group, these small effects extrapolated to population level would produce huge benefits from a cheap and easily accessed intervention.