With so much going on in the world these days and the concern over the Coronavirus, it's good to know that using plain, good soap still tops the list of things to do.
In a recent study, the Harvard Medical School published this in their Harvard Health Letter (excerpt):
Researchers recruited about 240 households in upper Manhattan to participate in a "real-world" hand washing study. Half were randomized to use 0.2% triclosan soap; half, to plain soap. After a year, the researchers tested the hands of the primary caregivers in the households for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The result: no statistically significant difference between antibacterial and plain-soap households. The researchers offered several possible explanations for their findings (resistance may not develop in a year; high antibiotic use may make it difficult to detect small changes), so the case isn't closed, but their findings do counter the lab research.
Even if antibiotic resistance weren't an issue, results from this study (and others) make you wonder if the antibacterial soaps available to consumers add much to hand hygiene. In the Manhattan households, a year of washing with an antibacterial soap didn't lower bacterial counts on hands any more than a year of washing with plain soap. Nor did the antibacterial soap households experience fewer cold-like symptoms. That's not surprising: Colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Still, the finding is a useful reminder that the antibacterial soaps aren't the all-purpose germ fighters that many people expect them to be.
New products clamor for our attention, but plain old soap and water is still a good way to clean your hands. In studies, washing hands with soap and water for 15 seconds (about the time it takes to sing one chorus of "Happy Birthday to You") reduces bacterial counts by about 90%. When another 15 seconds is added, bacterial counts drop by close to 99.9% (bacterial counts are measured in logarithmic reductions). Few of us wash our hands that long — 5 seconds is more like it. One reason you're supposed to use cool or lukewarm water is to increase the chances you'll wash them a little longer. Hot water is also more damaging to skin.
Soap and water don't kill germs; they work by mechanically removing them from your hands. Running water by itself does a pretty good job of germ removal, but soap increases the overall effectiveness by pulling unwanted material off the skin and into the water. In fact, if your hands are visibly dirty or have food on them, soap and water are more effective than the alcohol-based "hand sanitizers" because the proteins and fats in food tend to reduce alcohol's germ-killing power. This is one of the main reasons soap and water is still favored in the food industry.
Even people who are conscientious about washing their hands make the mistake of not drying them properly. Wet hands are more likely to spread germs than dry ones. It takes about 20 seconds to dry your hands well if you're using paper or cloth towels and 30–45 seconds under an air dryer.
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