University of Florida

Hand Washing

Hand washing is an important way to prevent the spread of disease. However, hand hygiene recommendations for different situations can confuse some people about which method is the best in everyday life.

Microbes: The Good and the Bad

The idea that your environment needs to be germ free is a misconception. The world we live in is full of microbes. Some cause disease and illness, but others are necessary for our health and well-being.

Our bodies are hosts to a variety of "resident" microbes, but we pick up other "transient" microbes through contact with objects.

Microorganisms can be picked up from other people, foods, fecal matter, or anything your hands come into contact with. After microorganisms get on you, they can be transmitted to other people or objects that you touch. Harmful microbes can be removed by washing hands with soap and water or can be destroyed by using antiseptic solutions.

Sanitizers vs. Hand Washing

For the general public at home, hand washing using plain soap and water is the best way to clean your hands.

Some confusion occurred when the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released new guidelines that alcohol-based sanitizers were a "suitable alternative to hand washing for health-care personnel in health-care settings." If there is dirt, food, or anything else on your hands, it renders the alcohol in sanitizers less effective. This is why the CDC recommendation does not apply to the general public.

At home, you should always use soap and water to wash your hands. Hand sanitizers should be used only as an optional follow-up to traditional hand washing with soap and water.

The only exception to using soap and water for hand washing should be in instances when soap and water is not available. In those instances, use of an alcohol gel is certainly better than nothing at all.

You may also want to wash your hands and use a hand sanitizer as an extra-precaution in certain situations, such as the following:

  • When you come into close physical contact with people at high risk for infection (such as newborns, the elderly, or immunosuppressed).
  • When you have direct physical contact with someone with an upper respiratory infection, skin infection, or diarrhea.
  • If you work in settings where infectious diseases are commonly transmitted, such as food preparation, and/or crowded living areas (child-care centers, preschools, or chronic-care residences).

Plain vs. Antimicrobial Soaps

During hand washing, soaps help the water mix better with dirt on the skin, which removes contaminants such as harmful transient microbes. Plain soap is used for the mechanical removal of transient microorganisms, while antimicrobial soap is used to kill both transient and resident microbes.

Triclosan is the most common ingredient in antimicrobial soaps, but the effectiveness of these soaps is determined by the amount of time they are left on the skin and the concentration of the product.

Excerpted and adapted from:

A. Simonne, Hand Hygiene and Hand Sanitizers (FCS8788), Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences (rev. 03/2011).

washing hands
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