Many people with OCD engage in compulsive hand washing. This habit can become excessive, at times resulting in raw and broken skin. There are two ways that hand washing can get out of control: 1) time spent washing, and 2) frequency of washing.
Excessive hand washing may be the single most common observable symptom of OCD, and is probably the behavior most commonly associated with OCD. But how much is too much? Many people with OCD become quite comfortable washing their hands several times per day. However, the frequency of hand washing can sometimes escalate, becoming a real impediment to living a “normal” life. By the time someone with compulsive hand washing seeks help, they often say that they have forgotten how often a “normal” person will wash their hands.
A good guideline for typical hand washing situations is as follows: after using the restroom, before inserting contact lenses, before preparing food, after touching pets, pet food, or garbage, and before eating. (See more comprehensive list, below.) A good guideline for the typical length of time it takes to wash one’s hands is twenty seconds, including time to wet hands and apply soap. If you or someone you know is washing your hands in excess of this, it may be helpful to get a consultation with a professional. This is especially true if hand washing is getting in the way of leading your (or their) life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer some useful guidelines on hand washing to promote healthy behaviors. However, remember that if they recommend 20 seconds of hand washing that does not necessarily mean that 40 or 60 seconds must be better!
When should you wash your hands?
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching an animal or animal waste
- After handling pet food or pet treats
- After touching garbage