Although massage therapists understand the importance of proper handwashing to maintain a healthy environment—especially in winter, also known as cold-and-flu season—not every massage client might.
National Handwashing Awareness Week is Dec. 6–12, and is a time to consider raising awareness about the importance of proper handwashing in order to stave off the spread of harmful bacteria and viruses—although simple education about handwashing can be presented to clients year ’round.
Here, massage therapists can learn from health care professionals how harmful pathogens may be spread through improper hand hygiene, and ways to help clients understand this important aspect of personal hygiene.
Pathogens Are Everywhere
Some bacteria and viruses are considered pathogens, or potentially infectious agents.
Bacteria are single-celled organisms, according to a National Institutes of Health information page.
“Under a microscope, they look like balls, rods, or spirals [and] [t]hey are so small that a line of 1,000
could fit across a pencil eraser,” the page noted. Bacteria can reproduce on their own; viruses need to invade a living organism to grow.
Experts say pretty much anything humans come in regular contact with—such as doorknobs, computer keyboards, restaurant condiment bottles, elevator buttons, telephones, restroom fixtures, public transportation, shopping carts, railings, toilet and faucet handles, even soap dispensers—can be covered in bacteria or other pathogens.
Most bacteria are safe; many also live in soil, the air and throughout all animals’ bodies. Others, when spread from person to person, can cause illnesses including E. coli infection and strep throat. The most common virus, especially during the winter, is the flu virus.
“Bacteria and other pathogens are spread when contacting items that are frequently touched, such as toilet flush handles, seat trays on an airplane, and wall light switches,” said Annie Morien, Ph.D., P.A.-C., L.M.T., author of Infectious and Communicable Skin Diseases: A Pocket Guide for Massage Therapists. “Other ways that pathogens are spread is through food, [and] contact with animals and infected people.”
Because pathogens are so prevalent, communication with staff and coworkers is a key aspect to preventing their spread, said Emma Gilroy, brand development manager with Direct365, a workplace washroom provider company.
“It’s a slightly awkward subject to approach, and you don’t want to patronize anybody—but the fact remains that many people don’t wash their hands throughout the day, so insisting that staff meet certain sanitary standards can really pay dividends in the long run,” Gilroy said.
“Ensure the safety of yourself and your colleagues by washing your hands after every trip to the bathroom, before and after you prepare food and any time you come into contact with other substances or when your hands are visually soiled,” she added.
The extra challenge for massage therapists, said physician Murray Grossan, M.D., is that bacteria and viruses can stick to the massage oil on the therapist’s hands—making diligent washing essential.
When it comes to washing, regular soap is a good choice—especially because concerns about antimicrobial soap are developing among medical professionals, due to its possible contribution to the development of resistant bacteria, said Gregory Cumberford, D.D.S., G.P.R.
“There are a lot of questions about which soap—liquid, bar, antimicrobial,” he said. “If your hands aren’t soiled, and have not come into contact with body fluids, you can also use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, provided it is at least 60 percent alcohol.”
Cumberford uses soap and water before and after seeing each patient. “I find that
hand [sanitizer] dries out my hands too much, especially in the winter,” he said. “It’s
also important to keep your hands moisturized, because they can start to crack … otherwise [with frequent washing].”
Beyond what a person uses to wash, how he does so is also important, said pharmacist Avni Mahiji, Pharm.D.
“Things to keep in mind when washing hands are, you should be using clean-running hot water, you should lather your hands with soap and scrub for about 30 seconds, [you should] make sure to clean in between your fingers and under your fingernails, and dry your hands using a clean paper towel or air-dry them,” she said.
People should also use caution when it comes to what they touch in the bathroom, Mahiji added.
“Many people don’t realize [it], but approximately 25 percent of restroom dispensers are contaminated by bacteria,” she said. “Most dispensers don’t get sanitized, and the bottoms of them are constantly being touched by dirty hands—so there’s a continuous culture feeding millions of bacteria.”
Additional defending-against-pathogens tips are to use a paper towel—or, in a pinch, your sleeve—when opening a bathroom door handle, said Jordan Tishler, M.D., and to refrain from the tradition of handshaking.
“Shaking hands in greeting is deeply ingrained in our culture, but is a terrible idea for infection control,” he explained.
A massage therapist can help keep her session room clean by disinfecting doorknobs, faucet handles and other areas that receive human contact on a regular basis. She can also remind clients of proper handwashing techniques by posting signage in the restroom.
Anyone may download free clean-hands publications, including brochures and posters, at the American Cleaning Institute’s website or that of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which offers signage with the slogan, “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands,” and others.
Even when a massage therapist does her best to educate clients, she should, Morien advised, always wash her hands before every massage “to decrease spread of pathogens to the client—and wash immediately after the massage, to decrease spread to yourself.”
About the Author
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. She has also served as MASSAGE Magazine’s editorial assistant, managing editor and editor. Menehan has reported and edited for additional publications and organizations, including Imagine Magazine, the Sacramento Bee newspaper and the LIVESTRONG Foundation.