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Myths and Facts About Hand Washing

Let’s explode some commonly held myths about hand-washing. Here are all the facts you need about how to wash your hands properly:

Myth: Hand soap without an antimicrobial agent is not effective.

Fact: Studies have shown that antimicrobial soaps are only slightly more effective than regular soaps.1 2 3 4 5 The most important aspect of hand washing is the action of breaking up the layers of fats on the hands (done with soap). This fat can entrap bacteria, so by removing some of it, bacteria are also removed. Both antimicrobial and regular soaps will work to remove this layer. Antimicrobial soaps can reduce bacteria further, but for the most part, the soap is not in contact with bacteria long enough to kill them.

Myth: People can get germs from using the same bar soap as other people.

Fact: Research has shown that bacteria do not readily transfer from one person to another by soap.6 7 It is likely that any bacteria picked up from bar of soap are washed away when you rinse your hands.

Myth: All bacteria on the hands are bad bacteria.

Fact: There are bacteria on everyone’s hands that are actually helpful. There are two different types: resident bacteria and transient bacteria. Resident bacteria are bacteria that normally live on your skin, these bacteria generally do not make people sick. They help keep the numbers of transient bacteria (bacteria that are not naturally occurring on hands and are the result of some sort of contamination) in check, by competing with them.8 When fewer resident bacteria are present on people’s hands, the number of transient bacteria can soar. Your skin is its own “biome” which needs to be kept healthy, so that breaks in the skin do not lead to infection.9

Myth: The hotter the water you use for handwashing, the better.

Fact: There is no research to prove that higher temperatures improve hand washing.10 Hand washing water is not hot enough to kill bacteria. However, hotter water is more likely to cause excessive drying of the skin. It is harder to remove bacteria from dry skin because of extra cracks and grooves, and dry skin can make hand washing painful.11 As a rule, the best temperature to wash hands is the warmest temperature that you find comfortable.

Myth: Hot air hand dryers are the most sanitary way to dry your hands.

Fact: Hot air hand dryers can actually increase the amount of bacteria on your hands after hand washing.12 13 14 Bacteria can grow inside of hand dryers because they provide a warm moist environment. When the dryer is turned on, the air that comes out can be filled with bacteria.15 16 17 18 Paper towels are a better way to dry your hands because they can physically remove bacteria while not adding additional bacteria to the hands.

Myth: Alcohol hand sanitizers are an acceptable substitute for handwashing.

Fact: Alcohol sanitizers have been shown to work on clean hands; when clean hands were contaminated with bacteria, alcohol hand sanitizers eliminated bacteria fairly well.19 20 It is likely, however, that sanitizers don’t work as well on hands that are dirty and greasy. For this reason sanitizers should be used only in addition to proper hand washing. It is also important to keep in mind that alcohol can dry out the skin, which can cause an increase in bacteria over time.21 22 23 There are even some studies that show that bacteria increase after the first use.24 25 Because of so much conflict between different studies on alcohol sanitizers, it is generally recommended that they only be used after hand washing or when water is not available.

Myth: There is no point in washing your hands after going to the bathroom because you need to touch the dirty doorknob on the way out.

Fact: The amount of bacteria that transfers from hands to surfaces is actually quite small.26 If someone with dirty hands touches the doorknob, only a small amount of the bacteria from dirty hands will end up on the doorknob. Of the bacteria on the doorknob, only a small amount will then transfer to your hands. Therefore, if you wash your hands and touch a doorknob with another person’s bacteria on it, your hands will still be much more clean than if you didn’t wash them at all.

Myth: As long as you wear gloves, there is no chance of getting bacteria on your hands and spreading infection.

Fact: Generally, when people wear gloves it’s actually less sanitary than when they don’t wear gloves, with the exception of when people have cuts or open sores on their hands.27 A hand-hygiene study was conducted by the Center for Disease Control and found that hand washing rates were significantly lower when gloves were worn. This is due to the fact that gloves create a false sense of cleanliness, which ultimately leads to gloves being used incorrectly and people not washing their hands well or as often as they should.28 29 After gloves are put on, bacteria on the hands increase quickly.30 If a glove is punctured, bacteria on the hands can pass to food even more easily. It is also important to remember that gloves can pick up bacteria from dirty surfaces and transfer them. For all of these reasons, hand washing is still the best way to fight the contamination of foods. If gloves are being worn, it is important to remember to change them frequently, with proper hand washing between changes.

All-natural, chemical-free soaps suitable for use on hands can be found here.

Non-greasy, purse-sized hand lotions to keep your hands from getting chapped with all that hand-washing can be found here

References

  1. American Journal of Infection Control - "Influence of two handwashing frequencies on reduction in colonizing flora with three handwashing products used by health care personnel.". Written by Larson E, Mayur K, Laughon BA. on April 17, 1989
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2729661
  2. Infection Control - "Evaluation of the skin disinfecting activity and cumulative effect of chlorhexidine and triclosan handwash preparations on hands artificially contaminated with Serratia marcescens.". Written by Bartzokas CA, Corkill JE, Makin T. on April 8, 1987
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3294700
  3. AGRIS - "A field study evaluating the effectiveness of different hand soaps and sanitizers". Written by Miller, M.L. James-Davis, L.A. Milanesi, L.E. on
    link to articlehttp://agris.fao.org/agris-search/search.do?recordID=US9629647
  4. AGRIS - "comparative evaluation of different hand cleansers". Written by Paulson, D.S. on
    link to articlehttp://agris.fao.org/agris-search/search.do?recordID=US201301502202
  5. Journal of the Science and Food Agriculture - "The epidemiology, detection and control of Escherichia coli O157". Written by Carol A Phillips on July 15, 1999
    link to articlehttps://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/%28SICI%291097-0010%28199908%2979%3A11%3C1367%3A%3AAID-JSFA374%3E3.0.CO%3B2-S
  6. American journal of public health and the nation's health vol. - "Bacteriological Studies Relating to Handwashing I. The Inability of Soap Bars to Transmit Bacteria". Written by BANNAN, E. A., & JUDGE, L. F. on June 5, 1965
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1256339/
  7. Epidemiology and infection - "Washing with contaminated bar soap is unlikely to transfer bacteria". Written by Heinze, J. E., & Yackovich, F. on August 10, 1988
    link to articlencbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2249330/
  8. Rutgers Cooperative Research & Extension - "Washing Away Misconceptions About Gloves and Handwashing". Written by Rebecca Montville, Research Scientist & Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., Extension Specialist in Food Science on March 1, 2002
    link to articlehttps://ag.umass.edu/sites/ag.umass.edu/files/pdf-doc-ppt/handwashing_fact_sheet_1.pdf
  9. Nature reviews. Microbiology vol. 9,4 - "The skin microbiome". Written by Grice, Elizabeth A, and Julia A Segre. on January 3, 2013
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3535073/
  10. Dairy, Food and Environmental Sanitation, Vol. 21 - "Handwashing Water Temperature Effects on the Reduction of Resident and Transient (Serratia marcescens) Flora when using Bland Soap.". Written by Barry Michaels, Vidhya Gangar, Ann Schultz, Maria Arenas, Michael Curiale, Troy Ayers, and Daryl Paulson on December 1, 2001
    link to articlehttps://www.researchgate.net/publication/258022190_Handwashing_Water_Temperature_Effects_on_the_Reduction_of_Resident_and_Transient_Serratia_marcescens_Flora_when_using_Bland_Soap
  11. Infection Control - "Handwashing and skin. Physiologic and bacteriologic aspects.". Written by Larson E. on January 16, 1985
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3881362
  12. Catering Health - "A comparison of hand drying methods". Written by Blackmore, M.A. on
    link to article#
  13. The Home Economist - " Is hot air hygienic?". Written by Blackmore, M.A. and E.M. Prisk on
    link to article#
  14. University Of Westminster - "Hand drying: A study of bacterial types associated with different hand drying methods and with hot air dryers". Written by Keith Redway, Brian Knights, Zoltan Bozoky, Abigail Theobald and Sophie Hardcastle on January 1, 1994
    link to articlehttp://europeantissue.com/wp-content/uploads/5.-IndStudy-AMSTP-study-1994-UoWM.pdf
  15. Catering Health - "A comparison of hand drying methods". Written by Blackmore, M.A. on
    link to article#
  16. The Home Economist - " Is hot air hygienic?". Written by Blackmore, M.A. and E.M. Prisk on
    link to article#
  17. The Journal Of Hospital Infection - "Hot-air hand driers.". Written by Meers PD, Leong KY. on August 14, 1989
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2572635
  18. Journal of the Science and Food Agriculture - "The epidemiology, detection and control of Escherichia coli O157". Written by Carol A Phillips on July 15, 1999
    link to articlehttps://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/%28SICI%291097-0010%28199908%2979%3A11%3C1367%3A%3AAID-JSFA374%3E3.0.CO%3B2-S
  19. Applied and environmental microbiology - "Comparative study on the antimicrobial effect of 0.5% chlorhexidine gluconate and 70% isopropyl alcohol on the normal flora of hands.". Written by Aly, R., & Maibach, H. I. on March 3, 1979
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC243263/
  20. Antimicrobial agents and chemotherapy - "Efficacy of alcohol-based hand rinses under frequent-use conditions". Written by Larson, E. L., Eke, P. I., & Laughon, B. E. on October 30, 1986
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC176477/
  21. The American Journal of Nursing - "Hand Washing: It's Essential: Even When You Use Gloves". Written by Elaine Larson on July 23, 1989
    link to articlehttps://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3426369.pdf?seq=1
  22. American Journal of Infection Control - "Changes in bacterial flora associated with skin damage on hands of health care personnel". Written by Larson EL, Hughes CA, Pyrek JD, Sparks SM, Cagatay EU, Bartkus JM. on October 26, 1998
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9795681
  23. AGRIS - "A comparative evaluation of different hand cleansers". Written by Paulson, D.S. on
    link to articlehttp://agris.fao.org/agris-search/search.do?recordID=US201301502202
  24. AORN Journal - "Testing a new alcohol-free hand sanitizer to combat infection". Written by Dyer DL, Gerenraich KB, Wadhams PS. on August 6, 1998
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9706236
  25. Journal of Food Protection - "Immediate and Residual (Substantive) Efficacy of Germicidal Hand Wash Agents". Written by Sheena AZ, Stiles ME on July 4, 1983
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30921934
  26. Journal of Food Protection - "Quantification and Variability Analysis of Bacterial Cross-Contamination Rates in Common Food Service Tasks". Written by Yuhuan Chen; Kristin M. Jackson; Fabiola P. Chea; Donald W. Schaffner on January 1, 2001
    link to articlehttps://meridian.allenpress.com/jfp/article/64/1/72/169143/Quantification-and-Variability-Analysis-of
  27. Cleaner Solutions - "Handwashing vs. Gloves in Commercial Restaurants". Written by Emmanuel Lim on April 18, 2016
    link to articlehttps://cleanersolutions.net/handwashing-vs-gloves-in-commercial-restaurants/
  28. Applied and environmental microbiology - "High-Pressure Inactivation and Sublethal Injury of Pressure-Resistant Escherichia coli Mutants in Fruit Juices". Written by Garcia-Graells, C., Hauben, K. J., & Michiels, C. W. on April 6, 1998
    link to articlehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC106191/
  29. The American Journal of Nursing - "Hand Washing: It's Essential: Even When You Use Gloves". Written by Elaine Larson on July 23, 1989
    link to articlehttps://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3426369.pdf?seq=1
  30. Dairy Food Environmental Sanitisation - "Handwashing and gloving for food protection. Part 1: examination of the evidence". Written by E.J. Fendler, Michael J Dolan, R.A. Williams on January 1, 2002
    link to articlehttps://www.researchgate.net/publication/306156501_Handwashing_and_gloving_for_food_protection_Part_1_examination_of_the_evidence

2 thoughts on “Myths and Facts About Hand Washing

  1. Thank you for your most helpful, clear and sensible information Shann I feel reassured by the facts you present

    1. Hi Alva,

      We are so glad that you found the blog post useful!

      Please don’t hesitate to get back in touch if you have any questions or queries 🙂

      Best wishes,
      Emma.

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