Many Americans tote around their personal bottle of instant hand sanitizer, comforted by the thought that a quick dousing is all they need to eliminate germs. But with new studies cautioning against the use of antibacterial soaps, the lingering threat of MRSA, and the impending cold and flu season, you may want to reconsider your current germ-defense strategy.
“Regular soap is just as good if not better than antibacterial soaps,” said Vandana Ahuja-Miller, MD, instructor in biology and adjunct instructor of public health at USP. “It’s all in the technique and taking the time to wash properly.”
According to Dr. Ahuja-Miller, warm water is better than cold water because it makes it easier for soap bubbles to form, thereby making it more efficient. “Ideally, about a minute of good scrubbing is enough, but it’s important to get between fingers and under fingernails,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of us do that anymore, especially when using automatic faucets.”
“The way soaps work is by making bubbles and dissolving cell membranes,” she said. “Good bacteria that cover the outermost layer of skin are the first to get dissolved. The next layer down consists of dead cells. Once these are washed off, your skin can get dry and start peeling if you wash it too much.” Dry and cracked skin is more susceptible to infections from harmful viruses and bacteria.
“Any part of our body that’s exposed to the outside environment has bacteria on it,” explained Dr. Ahuja-Miller. Under normal circumstances, they are not harmful; in fact, they are essential for our health. These good bacteria can prevent us from harboring harmful bacteria and viruses merely by competing for space on our skin. “If we are using a lot of antibacterial soaps, or even if we are washing our hands too frequently, we can wash off the good bacteria and create room for dangerous bacteria.”
Most antibacterial soaps contain the ingredient triclosan, which requires at least two minutes of use for it to be effective, according to Dr. Ahuja-Miller. Washing with regular soap, however, can efficiently clean your hands in far less than two minutes and does not involve any adverse side effects. Also, it is suspected that the overuse of antibacterial soaps is creating a group of triclosan-resistant bugs that are contributing to the emergence of superbugs— bugs that are unaffected by many antibiotics.
Another common alternative to ordinary soap is hand sanitizer. “The thing to remember with sanitizers like Purell® is that if you have dirt on your hands, they can’t penetrate it,” said Dr. Ahuja-Miller. “They provide a false sense of safety. It’s okay to use them in some situations, like if you’re somewhere without water, but it’s not a good idea to make a habit of using them.”
In recognition of National Hand Washing Awareness Week (Dec. 2-8), it is a good time to remind ourselves of the correct procedure for effective hand washing. This simple yet valuable step towards better health is easily overlooked when we are pressed for time and rush through what can be a mundane, but important process.
Simple Tips for Effective Hand Washing:
• Wash for about one minute
• Scrub in between fingers and under fingernails
• Use warm water
• Regular soap is recommended over antibacterial soap
• Wash only when needed, not excessively
• Avoid drying out your skin and use lotion
• Hand sanitizers are a backup, not a substitute for soap