With new infectious diseases threatening our health daily—such as SARS, MERS, the new coronavirus—frequent handwashing is more important than ever. Unfortunately, not everyone has this healthy hygiene habit…and few wash their hands as thoroughly as needed. Here’s an easy, fun, musical way to make sure you’re getting rid of all the germs, literally “out of the mouth of babes!”

Hands are arguably the most common way to transmit germs, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Children are especially significant spreaders of germs. For one thing, they have not learned hygiene habits that adults (hopefully) practice, such as coughing into the elbow. 

About 10 years ago, the WHO came up with a six-step hand-washing procedure that is practical and effectively reduces germs that cause infectious diseases. Studies find that when children practice handwashing correctly, it reduces upper-respiratory and gastrointestinal infections and also cuts down on number of days lost from school. Bonus: Learning the WHO method as a child will hopefully become ingrained and practiced automatically in adulthood for even longer-term germ reduction benefits!

However, it’s hard to get kids to remember all the steps…and to do them for the 30 seconds necessary to effectively get rid of the germs. Nisha Thampi, MD, at CHEO, a pediatric academic health center in Ottawa, Canada, and her “research assistant” eight-year old daughter came up with a brilliant—and fun!—solution. Their research was published in BMJ.

Solution: Since learning through memorization of songs and lyrics is a proven way to teach children, the research team created lyrics to a familiar children’s folk tune as a mnemonic that would be easy for children to learn. They used the French children’s folk tune, “Frère Jacques” (“Brother John” in English). To test the effectiveness of their method, the researchers applied fluorescent markings to their hands before washing.

Results: After washing while singing the song and performing the steps, the markings were notably decreased on the palms, back of the hands and fingertips compared with washing hands without following the six steps. To further explore how easy the song is to teach to young children, Dr. Thampi’s daughter taught the song to her four-year-old brother.

Dr. Thampi is working on a larger study to examine the impact of the song on handwashing behaviors among preschool-aged children in Ottawa, Canada, with the hope of having it incorporated into future public health campaigns in schools. She also has received requests to translate the song into other languages.

Ready to learn—and teach—the handwashing song? You probably already know the tune, but here’s a video demonstration.

Lyrics—and instructions:

Scrub your palms

between the fingers.

Wash the back! (wash back of one hand)

Wash the back! (wash back of other hand)

Twirl the tips around, (scrub fingertips of one hand into palm of other hand)

Scrub then upside down. (scrub fingertips of other hand into opposite palm)

Thumb attack! (scrub one thumb)

Thumb attack! (scrub other thumb)

Note: If soap and water aren’t handy, Dr. Thampi recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and doing the six steps until hands are completely dry.