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Handwashing Habits: OCD or Good Hygiene?

Handwashing Habits: OCD or Good Hygiene?

The recent months have shed new light on the importance of good hygiene, as the spread of the coronavirus became a serious threat to all Americans. Government officials and healthcare professionals instituted many safeguards to help slow the spread, but one of the most important dealt with handwashing. Hand-washing is one of the first lines of defense against bacteria that could compromise your immune system. Because of this simple but effective method for reducing contamination from one individual to another, good handwashing practices were publicized, notices posted, and demonstrations conducted to make sure everyone knew how to do it right.

Too Little or Too Much

When it comes to protecting yourself from the germs that are hidden in plain sight all around you, washing your hands frequently and thoroughly is important. The flu virus is able to live on the surface of a door handle for 24 hours, but noroviruses, which are commonly responsible for the stomach flu, can last up to two weeks on a surface. Research shows that washing your hands prevents one in three diarrhea-related illnesses and prevents one out of every five respiratory infections. The old rule of thumb has been to wash your hands as needed, such as before handling food, after blowing your nose or sneezing into your hand, and after using the restroom. But just washing them isn’t enough either. Washing them for at least 30 seconds with an antibacterial soap is what actually removes the germs. Bacteria and germs find their way under the fingernails, leaving you contaminated long after you leave the sink. Since the coronavirus hit, handwashing has taken on a whole new meaning.

Going Overboard

It’s almost impossible to wash your hands before you touch your face, but yet, this may be the most effective way to keep germs from entering your body through your nose or mouth. It is said that the average person touches some part of their face at least 16 times an hour. It could be to straighten glasses, rub the eyes, scratch an itch, brush the hair away, or wipe their mouth. Because of these habits, it makes keeping your hands clean after you wash them highly unlikely. Touching your face significantly increases your risk of catching an illness or disease, and you re-contaminate your hands after every touch. You can become an unsuspecting transmitter of a germ in the process. So what are you supposed to do? Wash your hand after every time you touch your face or a surface that you haven’t sanitized? Is there such as thing as washing your hands too much?

Becoming OCD

Someone who suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder engages in ritualized and repetitive behaviors that are motivated by unmanaged fears and thoughts. The OCD behaviors are the individual’s way of managing the fear, no matter how irrational it may be. Some OCD suffers are obsessed with a fear of contamination and germs and will wash their hands repeatedly whether their hands need to be cleaned or not. Most of these individuals will have hands that are chapped, raw, and bleeding because of the vigorous scrubbing and dryness that occurs from too much soap. They may move through each finger and scrub with a brush, making sure they follow a specific order. They refuse to touch the faucet or handles for fear of more contamination, and if they can’t get back to a sink to wash their hands again, they will use hand sanitizer. This could occur several times an hour and throughout the day, to the point where their habit disrupts their lives and creates incredible anxiety.

Finding the Balance


Germs are a real thing, and no one wants to get sick. However, you need to establish a sense of balance in your hygiene habits. Washing your hands too much can lead to some negative side effects. With an OCD habit or poor hand care, premature aging and skin conditions can develop. Your skin needs moisture for elasticity, as it is the body’s natural anti-aging element. Soap and harsh chemicals can strip all that away. There is also the need for your body to come in contact with some bacteria in order to develop a natural immune response and resistance. You don’t give your body a chance to develop antibodies against illness or disease when it never encounters any. You can have good hygiene habits without compromising your immune system, either through cracked dry hands with open wounds. Still practice 30-second handwashing after using the restroom, before you eat, and after making contact with your face for a cough or sneeze. You can use hand sanitizer to help keep hands clean after meetings or when in a crowded place like the mall or train station. However, make sure you use a high-quality hand moisturizer to keep your skin soft and elastic.


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About the author

Dr. Constance Odom, MD

5 min read