Licking Fingers After Eating Food – Good, Bad Or Dangerous?

Your party guest just licked their fingers after finishing the burger you had skillfully grilled on the barbecue. Did you just receive the best compliment acknowledging your exceptional culinary skills, or was it a gross violation of basic dinner etiquette?

So, here are the good, bad, and ugly about licking fingers after eating food.

Finger Licking Signals Deliciousness?

eating finger liking good food

The concept of finger-licking after a meal to signal deliciousness seems one of those things prevalent in general culture.

In fact, associating licking fingers with tasty dishes is so commonplace that “finger-licking good” has become an idiom and, eventually, the slogan for one of the most famous food chains in the world.

I can see where the association comes from. After all, if you are interested in licking your fingers after your meal, logic dictates that it has to be because the food was tasty enough for you to enjoy those leftovers.

We can see this pattern of behavior with young children, as they will often lick their hands and fingers after eating, and it’s a habit that parents have to force out of them. Almost as if it was an innate human instinct.

However, that is not the only reason behind finger-licking habits. After all, there may be a cultural dimension to address as well.

The Cultural Dimension Of Licking Fingers

ultimate Filipino Feast
Kamayan is a traditional Filipino feast eaten with bare hands.

In many cultures, eating with your hands isn’t just acceptable but even welcomed and expected. These practices may have been discouraged due to outside Western influence promoting cutlery and utensils. Still, in many cases, they prevail nowadays.

In the Philippines, kamayan is a traditional method of eating food with bare hands, but it has the implications of being an intimate type of meal reserved for dining with friends or family. However, plenty of restaurants nowadays serve meals in kayaman style, encouraging eating with the fingers [1].

Other countries in Southeast Asia also have a prevailing hand-eating custom. In Indian culture, there is a conception of eating with your hands as a way to connect with the food and improve the consciousness of eating, therefore benefiting digestion and increasing enjoyment [2].

According to Srijith Gophinathan, an Indo-Californian chef, eating food such as dosa or samosa with cutlery would destroy their integrity. But one must always use the right hand and never the left, as the left one is unclean [3].

On the other side of the world, you have Ethiopia. According to chef Genet Agonafer, eating Ethiopian food with one’s hands is a must, and feeding the person next to you is even considered a valuable social act called gursha [3].

traditional Ethiopian food, eaten with the hands
Most traditional Ethiopian food is eaten with hands.

However, keep in mind in these cases, I am talking about eating with your fingers, not precisely licking them. Some other cultures or religions do discuss the habit more openly.

For example, according to Islam, finger-licking after a meal is not a dirty or shameful act, as the Prophet engaged in the act, and it is said that the blessing of the food may be in every aspect of it. Thus, wiping one’s fingers may prevent one from enjoying the gift [4].

Regardless, it is no longer that widespread activity in contemporary society, as it is generally considered an act that no longer fits modern sensitivities.

Why? Because it is widely considered unhygienic.

But that said, even in Western cultures, many foods are eaten with hands, like pizza, hamburgers, sliders, ribs, and chicken wings. While these foods can be eaten with utensils, they are typically eaten using only hands. This is because they are considered finger foods – items that can be easily picked up and eaten without using a utensil.

Is Licking Your Fingers Unhygienic?

hand hygiene

There is no right or wrong answer to this question as it depends on personal hygiene habits. However, licking your fingers can be seen as unhygienic by some people because there is a risk of spreading bacteria and germs from your fingers to your mouth.

Human skin carries a plethora of microorganisms picked up from the surfaces we touch. Touching a contaminated surface and bringing your hand to your mouth is a sure way to get sick, and touching someone else in this manner is also a known way to spread illnesses [5].

However, if your hands are clean and you haven’t been touching anything dirty, then licking them is unlikely to cause any problems.

But despite that, it’s essential to remember that this applies to licking dirty fingers, which usually happens during absent-minded activities such as turning the book’s page.

Advocates for hand-eating techniques are generally quite strict about hand-washing before each meal, reducing the risk of accidental contamination.

Regardless, bacteria lodging itself in hard-to-reach crevices such as under the nails remains an essential threat to health, as it accidentally comes in contact with other people and thus spreads one’s own bacteria lodged in saliva.

According to a study that evaluated food safety among celebrity chefs, 21% of them licked their fingers during cooking shows, which means there is a high risk of them doing so absentmindedly and, subsequently, without obeying general health and safety rules [6].

It seems that technically finger-licking could be safe as long as one follows good hand hygiene, yet the high risk that people doing it out of habit without even realizing it makes it, by default, an unhygienic activity.

Is It Good Or Bad Manners To Lick Fingers After Eating?

man licking fingers after a meal

As a general rule, licking your fingers after eating is considered bad table manners if done in a social environment, especially on more formal occasions. This seems to be constant across most cultures and appears to be a worldwide agreement.

Even cultures that encourage eating with one’s fingers look down upon licking fingers. India considers it rude to lick fingers and enables to wipe hands discreetly or wash them off if required, despite having plenty of dishes that demand a hand-eating approach [7].

Most importantly, holding back from licking one’s fingers when eating with others is deemed a sign of consideration and thoughtfulness, as many people believe such activities are unbecoming or downright unappetizing.

Subsequently, it is essential to understand the environment before attempting to lick fingers—when alone, it is okay, as it is with family members that approve of the action.

However, the status of finger-licking is ambiguous at best. It is considered bad manners, but it is not something so outrageous that would require someone to speak against it or chastise others from engaging in it.

So, if you are at a formal dinner party and the food is finger-licking good, wipe your fingers discreetly with the napkin or excuse yourself and wash your hands in the bathroom. 

But when seeing someone licking their fingers, it is polite to ignore it and avoid calling it to the attention of others [8].

Read Also: 11 Most Tasteless Foods In The World Be Warned – You May Not Taste Anything!

In Conclusion

Licking fingers after eating food is considered bad manners by many people. It is seen as an unsanitary act that can spread germs and infections.

While there are no official rules about licking fingers, it is generally frowned upon in most social situations. If you are unsure whether it is appropriate to lick your fingers, it is best to avoid doing so.

However, if the meal really is finger-licking good and you can’t resist, go ahead and lick away – hopefully, you had washed your hands first!


About Jen Evansy

Nutritionist, researcher, avid home cook, and writer interested in everything nutrition and food-related. Striving to inform, encourage, and inspire all the readers to make healthy and informed choices when it comes to cooking, food, diet, and nutrition.