4 Dangerous Myths About Hand Washing

05/15/2011 09:42 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2011

Did you know that antibacterial soaps are tied to a public health crisis? It's true. The fervent use of antibacterial soaps and other antimicrobial products may be contributing to a growing scourge: antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic-resistant infections now claim more lives each year than the "modern plague" of AIDS, and cost the American health care system some $20 billion a year.

What will it take before it's taken seriously?

Hand Washing -- Your First Line of Defense Against Infectious Disease

Washing your hands is your number one protection against the acquisition and spread of infectious disease, but you do not need to use antimicrobial soap to get the job done.

Numerous studies attest to this fact, such as this 2007 systematic review published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, which confirmed that antibacterial soap containing triclosan did not provide any additional benefit compared with a non-antibacterial soap.

The authors concluded:

"The lack of an additional health benefit associated with the use of triclosan-containing consumer soaps over regular soap, coupled with laboratory data demonstrating a potential risk of selecting for drug resistance, warrants further evaluation by governmental regulators regarding antibacterial product claims and advertising."

Proper Hand Washing Technique

While you don't need antibacterial soap, it is important to use proper a hand washing technique. To make sure you're actually removing all germs when you wash your hands, follow these guidelines:

1. Use warm water
2. Use a mild soap
3. Work up a good lather, all the way up to your wrists, for at least 20 seconds
4. Make sure you cover all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your
fingers and around and below your fingernails
5. Rinse thoroughly under running water
6. Dry your hands with a clean towel or let them air dry
7. In public places, use a paper towel to open the door as a protection from germs that the
handles may harbor

Wash your hands when they look dirty, and prior to, or after, performing certain tasks that could spread infection, such as in these instances:

• Before and after preparing food, especially when handling raw meat and poultry
• Before eating
• Before and after treating wounds or taking/giving medicine
• Before touching a sick or injured person
• Before inserting contact lenses
• After using the toilet or changing a diaper
• After touching an animal, its toys, leashes or waste
• After blowing your nose or coughing/sneezing into your hands
• After handling garbage or potentially contaminated waste

Antibacterial Products Pose Several Health Risks

Once you understand that good-old-fashioned soap and water are just as effective as modern antibacterials, the second issue becomes that of side effects. In a 2010 press release, Dr. Sarah Janssen of the Natural Resources Defense Council is quoted as saying:

"It's about time FDA has finally stated its concerns about antibacterial chemicals like triclosan.
The public deserves to know that these so-called antibacterial products are no more effective in preventing infections than regular soap and water and may, in fact, be dangerous to their health in the long run."

Yes, while paying more for antibacterial products you don't need, you're also putting your health at risk in a number of ways, including:

1. Early data shows that overuse may be contributing to the creation of hardier, more
resistant bacterial strains. Even the American Medical Association (AMA) does not

Antibacterial Soap Mixed with Chlorinated Water is a Dangerous Mix

As if that weren't enough, when triclosan mixes with the chlorine in your tap water, chloroform is formed, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified as a probable human carcinogen. I warned about this compounding danger more than five years ago.

In tests that closely mirror typical dishwashing habits and conditions, researchers have found that triclosan reacts with free chlorine to generate more than 50 parts per billion (ppb) of chloroform in your dishwater. And, when combined with other disinfection byproducts (DBPs), the additional chloroform could easily drive the concentration of total trihalomethanes above the EPA's maximum allowable amount.

As I've discussed before, trihalomethanes are some of the most dangerous chemical byproducts there are. The maximum annual average of THMs in your local water supply cannot exceed 80 ppb (parts-per-billion), but there really is no "safe" level of these chemicals.

Why Use Something that has NO Clear Health Benefits and Plenty of Possible Health Hazards?

The research clearly shows that you do not need antimicrobial soap to effectively protect yourself from germs. All you need is plain soap and warm water. Ditto for your dishes and your laundry.

So please, avoid using antibacterial soaps and other products containing these hazardous ingredients. They're just harming you and the environment, and adding to a significant public health problem. They also cost more.

Instead, just use a gentle, chemical-free soap. Local health food stores typically carry a variety of natural soaps that will do the trick without harsh chemicals.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Data on antimicrobial resistance is from in vitro studies only