When it comes to handwashing, most of us are doing it wrong, experts say.

#1 Tip for Preventing Colds and Flu: Wash Your Hands Right

Ask any doctor to tell you the number one trick to avoid catching a cold or flu virus and there’s just one answer: Wash your hands. But did you know it’s almost certain you’re not doing it right? That quick pass under the faucet with a dab of soap just isn’t going to do it when it comes to combating persistent germs.

Here’s the RIGHT way to wash your hands:

  1. Wet your hands – with warm water if possible – and apply a good dollop of soap. You don’t need antibacterial soap; regular soap is just as effective.
  2. Rub your hands together, really scrubbing them, both front and back and up over the wrists. Think of how you wash when you’ve got garden dirt or something sticky on your hands and wash them that way, even if they look clean.
  3. Rub under your nails; use a nail brush if possible.
  4. Time yourself: Sing happy birthday, twice through – this is the 15-20 seconds you need for a thorough wash. (Hint: This is a great trick to teach kids.)
  5. Rinse your hands well under running water.
  6. Dry your hands using a paper towel or air dryer.
  7. If you’re drying with a paper towel, use the towel to turn off the faucet.
  8. Use the towel or your sleeve to avoid touching the door handle as you leave.

Can’t get to a sink? Use alcohol-based gel hand sanitizers or hand wipes instead. Carry one or both with you, and keep them in your car or purse. If you’re using a gel sanitizer, you don’t need to use water. The alcohol in the gel kills viruses and bacteria on your hands.

Here’s the RIGHT way to use antibacterial gel:

  1. Apply a nickel-size amount of product to the palm of one hand.
  2. Rub the gel over all over your hands and fingers for about 20 seconds.
  3. Keep rubbing until your hands are dry.

What about antibacterial wipes? Will they work to clean your hands? In a pinch, yes, at least until you can get to a sink. But what wipes are really good for is wiping down shopping cart handles, airplane tray tables, and other surfaces that many other people have touched. In one study, researchers found that 70 percent of shopping carts tested positive for food-borne bacteria. Most major grocery stores now provide wipes, but carry your own to be safe.

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.