Little Kids

Your guide to keeping your kid's hands clean

Which soap is best? Is hand sanitizer better? How do I get my older kid to wash their hands at school? Here's what you need to know to keep your kids' hands clean and germ-free.

Your guide to keeping your kid's hands clean

Photo: iStockPhoto

Every morning I open the sliding door of my van and drop off my two school-aged kids for a full-day of fun and learning. Lately, in addition to a kiss and a wave, I’ve been adding a quick reminder: "Don’t forget to wash your hands!" With the second wave of the coronavirus underway, I’m doing everything I can to protect my kids from contracting the illness.

We know that good hand hygiene can also slow down the spread of coronavirus. Unfortunately, kids aren’t exactly known for their cleanliness, and thorough hand washing isn’t always their top priority. But now more than ever it’s important to teach our kids that washing their hands is non-negotiable. 

“It’s something that we can model for our children,” says Candice Barra, a Guelph-based paediatrician. “If we make it a part of our routine, hopefully, when they are out of our sight they will remember to do it with minimal prompting.” Barra recommends the whole family wash their hands before meals, after they’ve been in a public place, and that parents encourage and remind their kids to wash their hands after using the bathroom. 

How to properly wash kids hands

First turn on the water. Let your kid choose the temperature that they’re comfortable with—Barra says it doesn’t even have to be warm. Teach your kid to wet their hands first, then apply soap, and work the soap into a lather. It’s both the friction from scrubbing and the surfactants in soap that sloughs of the bacteria—so that nice thick lather is important. Kids should scrub their palms, then the tops of their hands, between their fingers and under their nails for about 20 seconds. Younger kids might find it helpful to sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, or the ABC’s while they scrub—both songs are about twenty seconds long. Whether you leave the water running while you scrub, or turn it off to save water is your choice—theoretically you could reintroduce bacteria and viruses by touching the tap, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says there’s no data to support whether or not that’s a significant risk. 

After the hands have been thoroughly scrubbed, rinse them until all the soap is washed off. Have your child dry their hands with whatever is available—a paper towel, hand towel, or hand dryer all work fine.

If you’re in a public washroom with your kid it’s best to get a paper towel down before you start washing, then dry your hands with the towel, turn the tap off, open the door with the towel and then discard it (this avoids coming into contact with germs after you’ve washed your hands.) It’s best to teach your kids to avoid touching the tap and the door with their bare hands when they’re by themselves, you can teach them the paper towel trick, or have them bump the door open with their hip or back, or use their sleeve.

Which soap is best

Some people think that antibacterial soap is the only good option for handwashing, but Barra says that any soap that lathers works well for removing bacteria and viruses from the hands. Even regular bar soap is fine, and might be preferable to some harsher soaps that might have a drying effect on hands with frequent washing. One type of soap you may want to stay away from is foaming soap—because you’re not working up the lather yourself, it may be less effective than liquid soap, according to some research. 

Is hand sanitizer OK?


Barra says that hand sanitizer is a good alternative, if you don’t have access to soap and water. If you’re using hand sanitizer, put a good size dollop of sanitizer in your palm. Spread the sanitizer all over your hands, ensuring you rub in between your fingers, the tops of your hands, and under your nails. Rub for twenty seconds, at which point the sanitizer should be dry. Barra also advises that your hand sanitizer should have 60 percent alcohol. 

How to keep school-aged kids hands germ-free

Centres like preschools and daycares often have pretty stringent hand-washing routines and younger kids are often supervised when they are washing their hands. But if you have an older kid, there’s a good chance they don’t have a sink in their classroom and are also using the bathroom at school without adult supervision. So how do you make sure they’re “20 seconds of scrubbing” clean? 

First, talk to them about why they need to wash their hands—that preventing the spread of germs can keep them from getting sick, and can also protect others from illness. Depending on the age of your kid, you can give them more details about COVID-19. (To clear up any misinformation or unnecessary fear, assure them that kids don’t tend to get seriously ill with it, but other people in society are more susceptible, and they can do this small thing to help others stay healthy.) 

Next, ask your kid about their current hand washing practices—is there a designated time for washing before lunch and when they come in from recess, for example. If not, pack hand sanitizer in their backpack, or look for one that attaches right to the bag. You may have to search around for hand sanitizer though, as some stores have sold out. 

Another idea is to leave some in their lunchbox, with a note that reminds them to clean their hands before eating or having a snack (if they aren’t reading yet, then include a visual reminder, like a drawing). 


“Having hand sanitizer in the class is super important, and also having tissues in the class,” says Barra, and ideally teachers have these items in the classroom available to all students. She added that while sneezing or coughing into your elbow is better than using your hands, it’s best to sneeze or cough into a tissue, and then throw the tissue away. Then, it’s important to remember to sanitize your hands with hand sanitizer (once again, ideally available for all students in the classroom). 

“If their hands are not physically dirty I think it’s reasonable to use hand sanitizer as a quick alternative,” says Barra, unless they have actual mucus on their hands, then they’ll need to wash with soap and water. 

Barra also says that schools should have signage in the washroom that reminds students how to correctly wash their hands, and a sign on the door as an added reminder. Parents may want to discuss with their child’s teacher and principal what practices the school is employing to ensure proper hand-washing in light of the coronavirus. 

A few more tips to keep things clean

-When sanitizing items keep in mind that coronavirus is a virus, not a bacteria. The World Health Organization says that the following disinfectants work to kill the COVID-19 virus on surfaces: bleach, chlorine-based disinfectants, and 75 percent ethanol (alcohol). 

-Sanitize grocery carts, with disinfectant wipes, especially if your child is sitting in one. Make sure the product you use kills viruses. 


-Barra recommends frequently wiping down your phone, or other commonly used personal electronic devices. Apple recommends using a lint-free cloth for its products, and to carefully clean with soapy water. This should be done at least once a day.

-Talk to your kids about being mindful of where their hands are. Remind them to avoid touching their face, touching their masks, putting their hands in their mouth, and touching their eyes.

-Wipe down, or wash with soap and water, other frequently handled items, such as toys. 

-It’s also a good idea to keep your child’s nails trimmed, since dirt and germs collect under the nails and can be hard to get clean.

This article was originally published on Mar 05, 2020

Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners

I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Brianna Bell is a Canadian journalist covering high-control religion, parenting and more. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, The Guardian. Brianna is currently working on a memoir.