It’s that time of year again. The weather is fickle – hot today and frost tomorrow. The annual tissue and tea supply has been laid in, and the never-ending refrain of ‘Wash your hands!’ has begun. Cold, flu, and rampant stomach virus season is upon us.
It’s also the time of year that I start looking for the magic bullet – the guarantee that this year will be illness free – the one elusive product that will kill any germ that dares to so much as look at my family. Antibacterial soap? No, tried that in ’04 – the year of the Killer Stomach Virus From Heck. Hey, what about this hand sanitizer? It kills 99% of germs! Oops…nope. Tried that in ’09 – the year of the Foul Flu of Forever.
Truth is, not much works better than plain, old-fashioned soap and water. In fact, the CDC likens handwashing to a ‘do it yourself vaccine’. Simply by wetting your hands, lathering up, scrubbing for 20 seconds (hum Happy Birthday twice), rinsing well under running water, and drying you significantly reduce your chances of getting ill. And no need to run out and stock up on antibacterial soaps. To date, studies have shown that there is no added health benefit for consumers using soaps containing antibacterial ingredients compared with using plain soap.
What about hand sanitizers? Well, they work. Sometimes. If your hands are already clean. A hand sanitizer needs to be 60-95% alcohol to be effective, and the CDC says that they don’t work well on soiled hands. Why? Hand sanitizers work by killing microbes that come into direct contact with them. If there is dirt, food, or some other type of soil on your hands, the sanitizer can’t reach all the microbes. So, if your hands are clean, and you just want some extra insurance after grabbing onto that stair rail in the subway, then a hand sanitizer should work just fine. But if you’ve been helping with craft time at the local school? Soap and water is the way to go.
So, this year we’ll stick with soap and water. And maybe a tape recording of me saying ‘Wash your hands!’. My throat gets sore after the hundredth time.