One hand may wash the other, but when it comes to preventing illness, you've got to wash both. And using regular soap to do it appears just as effective as using more expensive antibacterial cleanser.
That's according to researchers who followed 238 New York City families for a year and compared illness rates between families given antibacterial soaps, household cleaners, and laundry detergents, and families given comparable products without the antibacterial ingredients. Neither group knew which type of product they were using.
The results, published in the latest issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, found no significant difference between the two groups in the frequency of such symptoms as fever, cough, diarrhea and vomiting.
Why? Most illnesses are caused not by bacteria, but by viruses, against which antibacterial products offer no additional protection.
In fact, frequent washing with any type of cleanser will reduce your chances of getting sick. Lead researcher Dr. Elaine Larson, associate dean of research at the Columbia University School of Nursing in New York, notes, "There were much fewer bacteria on people's hands in both groups [compared to when the study started]."
Defending antibacterials was the Soap and Detergent Association, which noted "Antibacterial cleaning and personal care products do what they say they do: they kill harmful bacteria. This research focused on diseases caused by viruses, not bacteria."
Home vs. Hospital
But bacterial infections are a much greater problem in hospitals than they are in the home.
"Hand washing using antibacterial agents is crucial in certain settings — especially in the hospital or with patients that are at high-risk of becoming ill or are very ill already," says Dr. Lee Harrison, a professor in the division of infectious diseases, and director of the epidemiology unit and Public Health Infectious Diseases Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh.
Harrison adds, "That's very different than the home environment. There is no need to use these products in the home. Regular soap and water work perfectly well."
So what's the best way to prevent infection at home? Simply wash your hands often.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that it's often your hands that become contaminated, so you should avoid touching your eyes, nose, or your mouth before careful hand washing.
"It's really a matter of when you wash your hands," says Dr. Jyoti Somani, an assistant professor in the infectious diseases division at Emory University in Atlanta. "Make sure you wash your hands more before eating, when you come in from the outside, after taking off your shoes, after you come in contact with someone who's sick, and certainly after using the toilet."
Harrison adds an extra caution for the kitchen, "Make sure you wash your hands after handling raw foods and meats and clean any utensils or cutting boards before using them again. Avoid any cross-contamination."
The CDC also recommends washing your hands after handling animals or animal waste, more frequently when someone in your home is sick, and particularly in public places since that is where most people pick up germs.
Larson has an easy and portable way to wash your hands, "There are alcohol-based hand sanitizers available now that don't require water or sinks. You can carry them around wherever you go. They kill a lot of germs fast."
Kids and Germs
All of the households studied had at least one young child. Beyond following good hygiene, are there any extra precautions that parents should take?
Dr. Kathy Park, a pediatrician at the Odessa Brown Clinic in Seattle says, "Parents need to be extra careful and wash their hands after changing diapers or when a child is sick, to avoid transmitting infections."
Advises Somani, "Parents need to teach kids the importance of hand washing early on. Kids follow their parents."
But there may be little you can do to prevent colds in young children.
Explains Park, "Young kids get a lot of colds, especially if they are in day care. In the first couple of years, kids can get up to 8 to 10 colds a year."
More Tips to Stay Healthy
Even if antibacterial products won't help protect against viral infections, it can help prevent skin infections and gastrointestinal infections caused by bacteria. But researchers say more study is needed before any other potential health benefits can be determined.
In the meantime, the simple things you learned growing up are still the most effective. Covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze is a good place to start.
For everyday hand washing, the CDC recommends rubbing your hands vigorously and scrubbing all surfaces for 10 to 15 seconds after applying liquid or clean bar soap. It's the soap plus the scrubbing action that helps dislodge and remove germs. Rinsing well afterwards ensures the germs are removed.
Somani adds, "I want to put a plug in for good nutrition, adequate sleep, and immunizations. It's more than just the germs. Having good health habits gives you better protection against becoming ill."