Dr. Jennifer Grant explains why hand washing just makes good sense and helps keep all of us healthy, particularly in a health care environment.
Q: Why do I need to wash my hands after going to the washroom if I’m only momentarily in contact with my bathing suit area? Isn’t that the cleanest part of my body because it’s covered up all day?
A: The bacterial flora that we all have is different on different parts of our body. You should wash your hands after going to the bathroom because the bathing suit area has the highest level of coliform bacteria (from the digestive tract and excrement) than any other part of your body. And the fact that that part of the body is nice and warm and moist thanks to protective clothing keeps things at an optimal temperature for bacterial growth.
Q: Why should anyone else care whether or not I wash my hands? I’m the only one who’ll get sick if I don’t wash up.
A: That’s simply not true. For example, if you're serving food to your family, you and your family might get sick. Also, if you are sick, you can’t go to work and that costs everybody money. But for health care workers taking care of patients, hand washing becomes even more important. Many patients have compromised immune systems, and for all who have a different bacterial flora than you do it’s critical that you wash your hands. Your own flora can be dangerous to other people. We’re all different and it’s the introduction of new flora that tends to make us sick. There’s very solid evidence showing that health care workers transiently carry organisms that are resistant to antibiotics.
Q: Are antibacterial wipes, liquids, and gels as effective as washing my hands?
A: Hand-rub liquids/gels in and around health care facilities like hospitals have a good track record of being effective. However, there are very little data looking at widely available, commercial bacterial wipes. Perhaps in some contexts they may be the best option, but they are not proven to be as effective and should not be used. The two best options for cleaning hands are soap and water and the alcohol-based hand rub. If people don’t have time to wash their hands, the alcohol-based hand rub is a solid option – it’s faster and results in less skin breakdown for people who have to use it repeatedly.
Q: I sometimes see people using paper towels or tissue to open bathroom doors as they exit after washing their hands. Isn’t that overkill?
A: In your own home, that would probably be a little weird. However, that is actually a proper technique for health care environment where the dirtiest part of the bathroom is actually the door handle. So, it does make a sense to wash your hands and grab the door handle with a paper towel to protect you from all the germs belonging to people who didn’t wash their hands.
Q: Are antibacterial soaps better than non-antibacterial ones?
A: At home, we strongly discourage the use of antibacterial soaps and antibacterial wipes intended for cleaning. They’re not necessary and a good washing with soap and water is adequate.