Antibacterial Soaps and Hand Sanitizers

Do I need to use antibacterial soap?
No. Antibacterial soaps are no better than a good scrubbing with regular soap and water for removing disease-causing germs or preventing the illnesses they can cause. Studies show no differences in the number of illnesses suffered by people and families who use these soaps versus regular soaps.

What you need to do: Wash your hands correctly
To really protect yourself, lather vigorously for at least 20 seconds, the amount of time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. Then rinse and dry with a clean towel. If you’re using a public sink, use a paper towel to turn off the tap (and to open the door on the way out). There are an estimated 229,000 germs per square inch on frequently used faucet handles!

Are hand sanitizers as good as soap and water?
Almost. Alcohol-based antibacterial gels and towelettes are a proven, germ-fighting alternative for ridding your hands of bacteria and viruses when soap and water aren’t available. In one study of 292 Boston-area families with young children, those who used hand sanitizers for 5 months cut the spread of gastrointestinal infections by 59 percent. In another study, families who washed up with hand gels about five times a day cut the risk for colds by 20 percent, compared to families who scrubbed less often. For best results, squeeze out a half-teaspoonful (about the diameter of a nickel) or grab a towelette, and vigorously rub your hands, front and back. Note that alcohol-based hand gels must contain at least 60 percent alcohol to effectively kill germs.

What you need to do: Tuck an antibacterial cleaner into your child’s backpack
When 420 kids in elementary school used a hand sanitizer several times a day at school — when coming into the classroom, before eating, and after using the bathroom — for 4 weeks, they got 29 percent fewer gastrointestinal illnesses and 49 percent fewer colds. Kids who used sanitizers also had 31 percent fewer sick days.

Should I use, or avoid, antibacterial household cleaners?
They probably won’t harm you and can reduce the transmission of some germs, which is important when someone in your house has an infection. The drawback? These cleaners fight bacteria but not necessarily viruses, and many common infections such as colds and flu are caused by viruses.

What you should try: Make homemade cleaners
Hot water and dish detergent has proven effective for killing germs on surfaces in kitchens and bathrooms, for example. And baking soda or vinegar solutions killed 90 percent of bacteria such as Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, and E. coli in another study, though commercial cleaners zapped 99.9 percent. Depending on the germs hanging around, that 9.9 percent difference could mean the difference between staying well and getting sick, and may be especially important if your household includes babies, older people, or anyone with weakened immunity.

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