Compared with other parts of the hand, the area beneath fingernails harbors the most microorganisms and is most difficult to clean. Artificial fingernails, which are usually long and polished, reportedly harbor higher microbial populations than natural nails. Hence, the efficacy of different hand washing methods for removing microbes from natural and artificial fingernails was evaluated. Strains of nonpathogenic Escherichia coli JM109 and feline calicivirus (FCV) strain F9 were used as bacterial and viral indicators, respectively. Volunteers with artificial or natural nails were artificially contaminated with ground beef containing E. coli JM109 or artificial feces containing FCV. Volunteers washed their hands with tap water, regular liquid soap, antibacterial liquid soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel, regular liquid soap followed by alcohol gel, or regular liquid soap plus a nailbrush. The greatest reduction of inoculated microbial populations was obtained by washing with liquid soap plus a nailbrush, and the least reduction was obtained by rubbing hands with alcohol gel. Lower but not significantly different (P > 0.05) reductions of E. coli and FCV counts were obtained from beneath artificial than from natural fingernails. However, significantly (P < or = 0.05) higher E. coli and FCV counts were recovered from hands with artificial nails than from natural nails before and after hand washing. In addition, microbial cell numbers were correlated with fingernail length, with greater numbers beneath fingernails with longer nails. These results indicate that best practices for fingernail sanitation of food handlers are to maintain short fingernails and scrub fingernails with soap and a nailbrush when washing hands.