But Patrick is concerned that antibacterial soaps can be harsh on the skin, particularly if people wash their hands as often as they should. "If you are washing your hands thoroughly, regular soap is great," she said.
Both agree that if your hands are visibly clean, and you just want to make sure that you're not transmitting germs, then an alcohol-based disinfectant gel will work just as well as soap and water.
"The alcohol gel works very well," Patrick said. "It will kill upwards of 99 percent of the bacteria on your skin, and does it quickly and cleanly."
Just apply a dab to your hands and rub until it evaporates, Weida said. The friction assists the alcohol in killing the germs on your hands.
In general, you should clean your hands before you eat or after you go to the bathroom, Weida said.
The CDC also recommends washing your hands after changing diapers, before and after tending to someone who is sick, after handling an animal or animal waste, after handling garbage, before and after treating a cut or wound, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
"For me, here in the office, our policy is to use an alcohol-based hand-washing gel both before and after we examine a patient," Weida said. "Before so I don't give something to the patient, and after so the patient doesn't give something to me."
"People ask me, 'Gosh, what special shot do you get to keep yourself healthy, seeing all these sick people?' And I say it's hand-washing that protects me," Weida said.
To learn more about hand hygiene, visit the Minnesota Department of Health.
Free hand hygiene educational brochures are being made available to help remind children and adults that frequent and proper hand-washing can protect against germs and illness.
The brochures, offered by the Soap and Detergent Association and the American Society for Microbiology, include one for children called Have U Washed Your Hands 2Day? It offers youngsters easy-to-remember information on when and why they should regularly wash their hands with soap and water.
The adult brochure, Don't Get Caught Dirty Handed, stresses that many cases of colds, flu and food-borne illness are spread by unclean hands and that these diseases cost billions each year in health-care spending and lost productivity.
Both brochures are available at washup.org.
SOURCES: Thomas Weida, M.D., professor of family and community medicine, Penn State University's Hershey Medical Center, Hershey, Pa.; Marcia Patrick, director of infection prevention and control, MultiCare, Tacoma, Wash., and spokeswoman, Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention