Hand washing with soap and water helps you stay healthy, but that may not be entirely true when it comes to hand sanitizers.
By Denise Mann
Medically Reviewed By Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
Most people have gotten the message: Regular hand washing with soap and water can help prevent colds and the flu. But are you taking this advice too far?
When there’s no sink around (or even when there is one), you might reach for the hand sanitizer to squash germs. But research suggests that this seemingly healthful habit may be doing more harm than good. Obsessive hand sanitizer use may be fostering the development of super bugs or germs that are resistant to antibiotics.
The research focuses on antibacterial soaps, body washes, and gels that contain triclosan to reduce or prevent bacterial contamination. One study from the University of Michigan showed that triclosan can cause some bacteria to become resistant to widely used antibiotics.
“There is currently some research in the lab setting that suggests triclosan may increase risk of antibiotic resistance, but this is far from definitive,” said Philip Tierno, MD, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
To help get to the bottom of this, the Environmental Protection Agency is now looking into the issue to determine whether these products could lead to resistant germs.
The main concern with triclosan, however, is that it doesn’t protect against viruses anyway. The common cold is caused by a virus, not bacteria, Dr. Tierno added. And not all types of hand sanitzers are under suspicion. “Hand sanitizer with alcohol has never been responsible for the creation of any kind of antibiotic-resistant bugs,” he said. Alcohol use can’t sire super bugs. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an alternative to hand washing.
Alcohol or Soap and Water?
Alcohol kills bacteria and does so quickly. By contrast, hand washing just washes germs away, Tierno said. “If you know you have been exposed to potential pathogens, you may want to use an antibacterial alcohol-based hand sanitizer,” he said. This is usually recommended in hospitals and other health care settings.
One of the issues with good old-fashioned hand washing is that most of people don’t do it correctly or for long enough for it to be effective. “It should take 15 to 20 seconds and reach in between fingers and under your nail bed,” Tierno said. “Most people don’t do that, and that’s the bigger problem.” (For added measure, don’t touch the door or any other fixtures in the restroom with your freshly washed hands. Use a paper towel instead.)
Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, agreed that, most of the time, regular soap and water will do the job. But, he noted a behavior that’s helpful, too.
“The most important reason to wash and clean your hands is so they are clean when you touch your face, as this is how germs enter your body and you get sick,” Dr. Horovitz said. “If you don’t want to get sick, condition yourself to never touch your face.”