It’s cold and flu season and you know what that means: keep your hands clean!!! I’m sure you hear it every year, and you may think ‘I know, I know’, but clean hands are integral to preventing the spread of the flu!!! As the saying goes, ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness,’ so who wouldn’t want clean hands?

Did you know? The cold and flu are quickly spread by: direct person-to-person contact (i.e. touching hands to nose and mouth) or indirect contact (i.e. touching objects, such as desks and door handles).

But, what should you use: antibacterial/antimicrobial hand gels or soap and water? How do these work anyway? And how effective are they?

Let’s start with how antibacterial/antimicrobial gels work. I’m sure you’ve seen these gel pumps everywhere – they’re even available in some really cool colours and designs. Despite the colour or the design of the packaging they all work the same way: alcohol is the main constituent and the only active ingredient of these antibacterial gels. Most of these products contain 60-95 per cent alcohol. Alcohol is a proven antibacterial agent: it works by disrupting and damaging the protein components of the bacterial cells, thereby destroying the bacterial cell as a whole. During this mechanism of action alcohol also strips off the uppermost layer of dead skin on your hands, effectively removing any additional microbes that may reside there.

Did you know? Most hand sanitizers claim they can kill 99.9 per cent of bacteria.

What about soap and water? Well, besides the fancy fragrances the active components of soap are sodium or potassium salts of fatty acids (i.e. all that chemical mumbo-jumbo on the packaging). The resulting detergent molecules have both a hydrophobic and a hydrophilic end. The hydrophobic (i.e. water hating) ends interact with dirt particles (including bacteria and viruses), while the hydrophilic (i.e. water loving) ends interact with water molecules. In this way, soap molecules form “micelles” or spheres that capture dirt molecules and microbes (i.e. bacteria or viruses), which are then rinsed off with water. The mechanism of action of soap and water also involves rubbing and scrubbing, which physically disrupts and destroys the microbes on the surface of your skin. This is an effective antimicrobial strategy, but optimal results only occur if you rub and scrub and keep a layer of soap on your hands for at least 30 seconds, to allow micelles to form, before washing it off.

Did you know? Antimicrobial soaps are an effective hand cleansing strategy, as they combine the beneficial effects of both alcohol based hand sanitizers and soap and water.

So which is the better strategy and what should you use? Well, this depends on where you are and what is available to you. For instance, if you are able to use soap and water, then that’s what you should use as they physically remove dirt and germs from your hands. But if you are unable to use soap and water, for instance if you sneeze or cough in the middle of class, then you should always use an antimicrobial hand sanitizer. Bottom line: keep your hands clean!!!

Learn more!:

Cold and flu

More on the debate of hand sanitizer vs soap

How does soap work?

More about hand sanitizer

Article first published on January 11, 2010.

Photo credit:stock.xchng

Narveen Jandu

Narveen is currently a Lecturer in Cell Biology and a Curriculum Fellow in Cancer Biology at Harvard Medical School. Prior to moving to Boston, she was a post-doctoral research fellow at Stanford University, where she was studying the interactive effects of gut microbes on immune cell homing and trafficking. Narveen received her PhD from the University of Toronto - her thesis was on the pathogenic effects of Escherichia coli O157:H7 on an innate immune signalling cascade of intestinal epithelial cells. Prior to her PhD training, she completed a Master's degree at McMaster University and she completed her undergraduate degree at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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