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Hand Sanitizers and Your Health: How Clean Is Too Clean?

By Carolyn Heneghan January 14, 2017 Posted in: Family Health , Article

Handwashing and germ-killing are par for the course when it comes to preventing colds and contagions, but is there such a thing as being too clean? While many parents may balk at the suggestion, health researchers have discovered that hand sanitizers could be hurting public health more than they're helping.

Opinions about hand sanitizers vary, and many antibacterial products can still be beneficial. Let's set the record straight with a look at the scientific facts and the recent research.

The Right Way to Use Hand Sanitizer

Despite claims made by hand sanitizer manufacturers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) contends that washing hands with soap and water remains the most effective way to reduce the number of microbes on the hands. When you don't have access to soap and water, the CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

To correctly use hand sanitizer, the CDC suggests using a large enough volume with each use and not to wipe the hand sanitizer off your hands before it has dried. Using a larger amount of hand sanitizer generally means it takes longer for your hands to dry, and that additional wait time can be frustrating for people of all ages. But it's important that you and your children allow your hands to dry naturally to achieve optimal germ-killing benefits.

The Downsides of Hand Sanitizer Use

Unfortunately, hand sanitizers are not a cure-all for anything that contaminates your hands and anything your hands touch afterward. If your hands are visibly dirty or greasy, hand sanitizers could be less effective, the CDC reports. And sanitizers don't necessarily eliminate all types of germs or other harmful chemicals, such as pesticides and heavy metals.

Besides hand sanitizers' weaknesses, the negative perspective some health experts have taken against these products surrounds global concerns about increased antibiotic resistance, according to a 2014 report from the World Health Organization. The theory is that because people are overusing antibacterial products and medications, pathogenic bacteria are evolving into so-called superbugs that can resist the antibiotics currently available on the market. These superbugs could pose a major threat to public health, as common infections may no longer be able to be effectively treated with modern-day antibiotics.

Hand Sanitizers May Not Be the Culprit

However, hand sanitizers shouldn't receive all the blame. Despite the widespread regular use of hand sanitizers, antibiotic resistance among pathogenic bacteria also comes from two other key sources: the overprescription of antibiotic medications and the increased use of antibiotics for farm animals. Farmers use antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease among their herds, which often live in close quarters that can easily spread diseases. But there's concern that antibiotics may then enter the food supply as residue present in the meat, dairy, and other products that food and beverage manufacturers derive from these farm animals.

As for medications, health workers may prescribe antibiotics when they aren't truly needed to treat an ailment. Patients often stop taking antibiotics once they feel better rather than when they finish their prescribed dose, which could cause the bacteria to come back even stronger. And occasionally, patients share antibiotics with others who didn't receive a prescription and don't need the medication.

How to Combat Being Too Clean

Instead of falling back on hand sanitizers at every instance of a potential contamination, address common cleanliness problems in your home and office space to prevent infections without relying on harsh antibacterial products. This may include proper food safety and storage techniques and frequently cleaning commonly contaminated areas like the kitchen and the bathroom.

Also, keep in mind that antibiotic medications and antibacterial sanitizers don't discriminate between healthy and potentially dangerous bacteria. That means every time you use your hand sanitizer, you may kill off most pathogenic bacteria, but you could also eliminate beneficial bacteria that live on your skin and are a natural part of your microbiome and immune system. Those health-promoting bacteria might even help you fight off infections naturally without the need for a course of antibiotics in the first place.

So, while you may not need to toss out your hand sanitizer collection, consider why and how often you use these products as frequently as you do. Speak with your doctor about whether your habit borders on being too clean for a healthy immune system. Then, decide for yourself whether you and your children could benefit from less hand sanitizer use going forward.

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