We all know that keeping hands clean helps keep us from getting sick, but how does handwashing actually work? Can we really get rid of all the germs on our hands? Is there a single best technique for handwashing? Do antibacterial soaps really work? Scientists have studied these questions, and some of the answers may be surprising.
What exactly are germs? Can handwashing really get rid of them?
Microbes, microscopic organisms, are everywhere, including on human skin. Many of the microbes on hands are single-celled bacteria. Many of the bacteria are always there, living harmless and unnoticed; these are called resident bacteria. Other bacteria are picked up from the environment; these are called transient bacteria. Transients can persist on skin for days to months, but can’t live there forever. They may include pathogens — disease causing organisms, or germs.
Handwashing can never completely remove resident bacteria; there may be 10,000 or more individual bacteria on each hand, and they are adept at sticking to skin and slithering down between the cracks in skin cells to avoid removal. Transient bacteria are present in fewer numbers and are not adapted to living on skin surfaces; they can be completely removed by handwashing. Therefore, the purpose of handwashing is not to make hands sterile; it is to get rid of any potential pathogens that have hitched a ride. However, handwashing technique can vary, and as we will see, some variables are more important than others in making sure pathogens have been removed.
Does it matter if the water is hot or cold?
Although germs aren’t likely to be destroyed by water temperatures we can tolerate, health experts have long recommended washing hands with warm or hot water. The reason is that warmer water should help dissolve oils and other substances coating skin, helping to wash away germs with them. Unfortunately, recent studies comparing the numbers of bacteria on hands washed with cold, warm, and hot water have shown no difference in the results — just as many bacteria remain no matter what water temperature is used. Since using hot water uses more energy and might irritate the skin if handwashing is frequent, cold water might be a better option.
What does soap actually do?
In general, soap doesn’t kill germs. In fact, populations of bacteria have been found thriving in liquid soap dispensers in public restrooms. Instead, the purpose of soap is to help remove contaminants and bacteria from the skin surface. There is an extra benefit as well; some studies have examined how thoroughly volunteers washed their hands with and without soap; the volunteers using soap did a much more thorough job. Using water alone will reduce the number of germs on hands, but using soap is more effective.
Should antibacterial soap be used? What about other sanitizers?
Although antibacterial soap is everywhere, there is no scientific evidence that it is any better at removing germs from hands than regular soap. There is also concern that triclosan, a common ingredient in antibacterial soap, could cause bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics.
For how long should hands be washed?
The length of handwashing depends on the circumstances; for example, very dirty hands or hands exposed to more pathogens need a longer period. In general, studies show that 20-30 seconds of handwashing is all it takes to remove most germs. To help time handwashing, you can hum the “Happy Birthday” song two times – this should take approximately 20 seconds.
Which areas get missed?
Worldwide, the same areas are missed again and again when hands are washed. Fingertips, cuticles, between the fingers, and the back of the hand, especially the thumb and ring finger, are areas which get the least attention; therefore, these are the areas where most germs remain.
GlitterBug is designed to disclose where hand washing can improve.
Research-based handwashing technique
In order for handwashing to work, proper technique is a must. Begin handwashing by wetting hands with warm or cool water. Apply soap and lather hands; remember commonly-missed areas such as around the nails, between the fingers, and the backs of the hands. Scrub hands together for at least 20 seconds (or two rounds of the “Happy Birthday” song) before thoroughly rinsing and drying.
As long as the proper technique is used, handwashing is an excellent way to reduce or eliminate transient bacteria, including disease-causing pathogens.
Hand sanitizers have been a popular commodity since the emergence of Covid-19 in the Spring of 2020. There was even a shortage for a while, as everyone rushed to stores to stock up. As sales continue to rise consumers should be aware of the ingredients of the product and the marketing techniques that manufacturers use to increase sales.
According to the FDA, in order to be effective, hand sanitizers should contain at least 60% alcohol. The label may list this as ethanol, ethyl alcohol, or isopropyl alcohol. If the label does not show the percentage of alcohol contained in the product, do not buy it.
Some types of alcohol are extremely dangerous, and it is doubtful that a manufacturer would list these on the label if they are present, but the FDA has found contamination with methyl alcohol or 1-propanol in some hand sanitizers manufactured in Mexico and sold in the U.S. Methyl alcohol, or wood alcohol as it is sometimes called, is used to make antifreeze. 1-propanol is an ingredient of industrial solvents.
Claims that hand sanitizers can prevent Covid-19, influenza or other diseases are misleading. Any product making these claims should be avoided. Hand sanitizers, when used properly, can only kill germs that are on your hands, and only lasts until you touch something else.
Misleading Marketing Practices
Some hand sanitizers on the market are scented with appetizing smells such as chocolate or strawberries. If a child smells these, he or she may think they are good to drink. Hand sanitizers packaged in containers that resemble beverage cans, water bottles or food pouches can also mislead young children into thinking that the contents are edible food products.
There have been cases where a person has mistakenly believed that a product that contains alcohol is OK to drink. Since alcoholic beverages contain alcohol, why not drink Nyquil, extract of Vanilla, mouth wash, or hand sanitizer and get a similar “buzz”? Ingesting any of these products could produce headaches, diarrhea, vomiting, irregular heart rate, seizures and if a very large quantity is consumed, possibly coma or death could result.
Since hand sanitizers seem to be everywhere these days it is important to understand what the ingredients are. Make sure the contents are clearly labeled and contain a minimum of 60% alcohol. Ignore claims made on labels that the hand sanitizer you are buying will prevent influenza, Covid-19 or anything else. It does not. Never ingest hand sanitizer. It is not safe for human consumption. Small children should be supervised when using hand sanitizers. When shopping for hand sanitizers, avoid packaging that could be mistaken for food products. Steer clear of those with appetizing scents.
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What makes us get sick more often during the holiday season?
Many theories have been postulated and studied over the years and many factors are blamed for being virus enablers. Closer proximity of hosts (us) within closed spaces makes transmission easier due to the shared air we breathe while indoors and the common surfaces we touch as people share confined areas. Further, foods are presented and ingested in areas with higher germ populations due to the foregoing.
Other theories suggest that inactivity and depression generally increases with the cold and gloomy weather and this coupled with decreased exposure to the sun may tend to inhibit our immune systems.
We suspect that all of these factors and more contribute to the seasonal spike in illnesses. But, there are some commons sense actions that can help reduce your chances of being the next holiday (infection) host. The most effective way to reduce your risks of seasonal sickness is to wash your hands often, especially after shaking hands, touching surfaces in common areas such as handrails and countertops and especially before eating.
September is National Food Safety Month and because everybody eats, everybody should be reminded about the importance of safe food handling. Safe food handling is critical of course for those who prepare your food, but the food-consumer should be careful not to introduce microbial pests while eating. Proper hand-washing is the common denominator of effective infection prevention. To help you with your mission of promoting food-safety and infection prevention Brevis is holding a September Special.
Foodborne illnesses cost the U.S. about $78 billion per year.
Each year, approximately 1 in 6 Americans gets foodborne illness.
Foodborne illnesses result in over 3,000 deaths each year.
68% of outbreaks occur at restaurants. Sourced from CDC.gov
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Hey, did you wash your hands recently? Well, you probably did it wrong. CNN pointed out a recent government study found that 97 percent of the time, people fail to properly wash their hands—a problem that can lead to all sorts of unnecessary illnesses being spread.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, people are falling short of meeting the standards for acceptable handwashing set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bar to make sure your hands are sufficiently clean requires you to wash and scrub with soap for at least 20 seconds.
The study looked at 363 people in six kitchen test facilities located in the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina and in the town of Smithfield, North Carolina. What it found was nearly every person working in the kitchens failed to reach the handwashing standard set by the CDC, which is probably not reassuring if you’re currently out to eat at a restaurant in Tar Heel State.
Certain events, actions or circumstances can make handwashing more important. For example, after being in public places, or handling often-touched objects like handrails and doorknobs, before preparing food, before eating and after using the rest-room. When possible it is best to avoid touching moist areas of your body such as eyes, nose and mouth unless you first wash your hands. Further, it is advisable to wash your hands after touching those areas. Germs most often travel by climbing aboard hands until they find a good opportunity to jump off into food we consume or directly into the portals of our bodies (mouth, nose and eyes etc.). Before helping these bugs find the greener pastures and making us sick send them down the drain.
Searching for the cause of an E Coli outbreak can send investigators in many different directions. This is a reminder that good hand hygiene practices and proper food preparation are of utmost importance. E Coli can be found in contaminated soil or water but it can also be spread through infected people. Germs that make us sick are everywhere and while we cannot always control where or how our food is grown we can control how we prepare it and make sure our hands are clean when doing so. Check out these links to the latest news on the Romain lettuce E Coli outbreak and the CDC which both reference person-to-person contact and the importance of hand washing.
Phew! We made it through the worst of the cold and flu season! With summer around the corner though, there is more waiting for us than just sunshine and snow cones. Playgrounds, water parks and amusement parks are full of fun, but also full of germs. Make sure to use good hand hygiene to make the most of your summertime adventures without taking home the wrong kind of souvenir. Check out Brevis.com for fun and creative reminders you can share with family and friends about the importance of keeping their hands clean this summer. Read more about summertime germ precautions.
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Germs are everywhere. In optimal conditions a virus can divide every 20 minutes, spreading rapidly where they dwell. In fact, contamination of a single doorknob can lead to the spread of viruses throughout an office building or hotel in as little as two hours.
Researchers from the University of Arizona, Tucson, placed a tracer virus on commonly touched objects such as a doorknob or tabletop. At multiple time intervals (from two-to-eight hours) the researchers sampled a range of surfaces including light switches, bed rails, countertops, sink tap handles, and push buttons. And guess what? Nearly 60 percent of the surfaces were contaminated within two-to-four hours.
“If we placed a tracer virus on the push plate to an office building, it ended up on almost 50 percent of the high-touch surfaces of officer workers’ hands within four hours,” says study author and microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD. “In the case of the hotel, we placed the virus on the nightstand in one room, and it was spread to the next four rooms by the maid during cleaning.” Also, the first item to become contaminated in the workplace was the coffee pot handle. Other contamination hot spots are phones, computers, and desktops.
Of course, our own bodies play host to around 100 trillion microbes that together weigh more than two pounds. They are present on our skin, in our guts, in the crooks of our elbows, and just about everywhere else. Your immune system protects against most microorganisms, but there are hundreds of thousands of different kinds of germs, and some of them are good at mutating into things your body doesn’t recognize. And they make you sick.
To get an idea of just how many microbes we carry—and which ones spread fastest—researchers are even testing our most intimate possessions: our cell phones. In a small study, University of Oregon scientists tested the index fingers and thumbs of 17 subjects, along with the touchscreens of their smartphones. As you might expect, they found an 82 percent overlap between the most common types of bacteria found on participants’ fingers and on their phones.
So your cell phone is covered with a personal bacterium cocktail? Clean it with a soft cloth dampened with water and wipe it down, or use a disposable wipe made specifically for cleaning electronic screens. Use a cotton swab to get the dirt and grime out of small nooks in the phone. The same goes for all of your other gadgets, too, including remote controls, headphones and ear buds, your computer keyboard, mouse, and tablet screen.
Yes, the war on germs is in your hands. Handwashing is the number one way to prevent the spread of germs and illness. Just make sure you’re doing it right. Friction (especially between the fingers) and duration—20 seconds with running water—are both important. And anything your hands touch are carriers. Learn all about handwashing here.
Here’s something else to think about: On average, an office desk has 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. It’s not surprising; the toilet is cleaned regularly. And remote controls, computer keyboards, phones, and iPods get touched way more than the toilet. Multiple coworkers and guest also share them—yet they are cleaned less often. You can find component-specific cleaning supplies at electronics stores. However, most disinfecting wipes are safe for electronics—just make sure to read the label before using them.
This one seems obvious, but how often do you walk around your home or office and wipe off doorknobs, cabinet handles, and light switches? You really should give them a once-over using disinfecting wipes—and don’t use the same wipe for more than a few places before grabbing a fresh one.
It’s easy to keep things clean. Soap and water. Bleach and water. Disinfecting wipes. Common sense. With these simple weapons, the battle against germs can be won. But the first step is you. Now go wash your hands!