Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Should you Use Antimicrobial Hand Soap in the Home

Despite health concerns to the contrary, antimicrobial hand soap -- particularly in liquid form -- has become a staple here in the U.S. I don't know if this is as true outside the U.S. I don't remember seeing any on a recent visit to France. However, this was a special twenty-fifth anniversary trip for DH and I, and it also was a the only time I've been able to get back to Paris after spending a wonderful summer there as a teen. So, needless to say, the last thing on my mind was determing whether the French use antimicrobial hand soaps or not! It may be more of a trend there than I realize. Maybe, some of our visitors from other countries can share what is happening in their culture with regard to these cleaners.
Honestly, for most home use, plain soap and water are effective in reducing whatever transient microorganisms are on our hands. Not only that, but the soap and water actually "lift" the germs off our hands so that they wash down the drain. Obviously, the effectiveness of soap and water depends on washing our hands for the proper amount of time and, then, drying them well. Proper hand washing with ordinary soap and water reduces bacteria by 90 percent or more and does much to stop the spread of contagious diseases.
Truth be told, antimicrobial hand soaps and cleaners do kill or inactivite more transient micro-organisms than plain soap does. However, the question has been raised, "Is this a good thing?"
Some experts have suggested that, in the main, it might not be. Their concerns are on two fronts. First: We've already created resistant strains of bacteria by our over-reliance on antibiotics. So, too, we might create resistant strains of viruses and bacteria by an over-reliance on antimicrobial soaps. Second: The tiny amount of microorganisms that are left on the hands after a good washing with soap and water are not dangerous to a healthy person. If we practice proper hygiene, we should have no worries. In fact, just as a muscle needs exercise, it might even be beneficial for our immune systems to have a few germs here and there to fight. Likewise, it might be harmful to our immune systems if we make them too reliant on antimicrobial soaps in our daily life. Cleanliness is so important to our health, but, believe it or not, some are beginning to think that we can overdo it!
Even in hospital settings, some experts have suggested that personnel use plain soap and water in routine patient care. They recommend reserving antimicrobial hand soaps only around newborns, people in high risk units, and people whose immune systems are already permanently compromised by disease.
There are other factors to consider. People often buy antimicrobial soaps and other products without reading the label. They may blithely assume that a certain product protects against viruses and fungus, when it only targets bacteria. And, they may not familiarzie themselves with the ingredients used in the cleansers and whether they are in an effective concentration. Also, consumers may pay more for an antimicrobial product, when less expensive soap and water is just as effective for healthy people.
Antimicrobial soaps can be harsh to your skin. This could backfire on you. If your skin chafes from the harsher cleanser, it will be more susceptible to invasion by microorganisms.
Decide carefully whether the regular use of antimicrobial hand soap is right for your family. If you have a newborn in your home or you regularly care for someone who is at high risk for infection, it might be wise for you to use antimicrobial hand soaps. Otherwise, you are probably just as well off or better using plain soap in your daily life.
My family members enjoy using liquid soap when washing their hands. However, I tend to believe the arguments against over relyig on antimocrobial soaps. So, it always takes me some searching before I locate a liquid soap that is mild, non-antimicrobial, and that isn't harsh on the delicate skin of my family members. For some reason, it's easier to find bar soap that isn't antimicrobial.
Along with antimicrobial soaps, sanitizing hand gels and foams have come on the scene. Some people buy them, but a few make their own gel. Most are based on some form of alcohol. Just as there is with antimicrobial soap, there is some debate about the use of hand santiziting gels. These cleansers were never meant to replace soap and water as the main way to clean your hands. Relying on them instead of a proper hand washing may instill a false confidence. The alcohol in these becomes ineffective in the presence of dirt, grime, or body fluids. If you have come in contact with these, you should wash your hands with soap and water instead of the gel.
However, there are times when you just can't get to soap and water as much as you'd like. Perhaps, you are traveling or in an emergency situation or work outside of the home. In those cases, hand sanitizing gels might be worth a try.
For example, if you work in an office, wash your hands with soap and water at home, whenever you take a break at work, and whenever you eat lunch. This should keep your hands free of grime. Reserve the use of hand gel for those times during the day when can't wash your hands and you touch computers, phones, or other surfaces that pick up lots of germs from lots of people.
Also, bathroom doors that are used by the public all day long attract germs. In some cases, you might want to wash your hands inside, go through the door to the outside, and, then, use hand sanitizing gel as an extra measure.
During a full day, we may find that our hands cease to "feel fresh". If you are at home, you can wash your hands, dry them, and put on some soothing lotion. But, it you are not at home, you might want to use the hand gel. I, personally, find that too much hand sanitizing gel is drying to my hands. But, you may not have a problem with this.
If you do use hand gel, how much is necessary? You should use enough gel or foam to wet your hands. Rub them vigourously until they are dry. If your hands dry within fifteen seconds, you haven't used enough.
Make sure your gel has enough alcohol in it to be effective. Not all have the right formulation to actually kill bacteria or germs. This is true whether they are commercially made or if you are following a recipe for making your own. Hand gels that are too weak actually spread the germs around on your hands, rather than getting rid of them.
"What this should say to the consumer is that they need to look carefully at the label before they buy any of these products," says Elaine Larson, professor of pharmaceutical and therapeutic research at Columbia's nursing school. "Check the bottle for active ingredients. It might say ethyl alcohol, ethanol, isopropanol or some other variation, and those are all fine. But make sure that whichever of those alcohols is listed, its concentration is between 60 and 95 percent. Less than that isn't enough."


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