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18 October, 2007

Now wash your hands

I already knew that one of the best ways to avoid catching colds and 'flu (apart from a healthy diet) is to wash one's hands regularly (but not obsessively).  However, in an article explaining how to do that properly, Jim Macdonald observes that:

Soap does not kill germs in the time that the germs are exposed during hand washing. Thereís stuff that grows fine on a bar of soap. The surfactant action of soap helps the running water flush the germs away. Thatís how it works. Itís purely mechanical. Antibacterial soap is a waste of time and money, and just helps breed antibiotic-resistant bugs.
That seems to be worded more precisely than commenters have appreciated, so it may be worth highlighting Mycophage's clarification at BoingBoing, before slightly inaccurate information becomes an e-mail meme:
It's not true that soap is good at growing germs: if it were, there would be visible colonies all over the bar in your shower, especially if you let it sit for a few days. Nor is it true that surfactant slipperiness is the only mechanism by which soap acts to kill bacteria: surfactants (also known as 'detergents' in technical parlance) disrupt microbial cell membranes, directly causing bacterial death.

It is true that antibacterial soap is next to useless, since the bacteria aren't exposed to the antibiotic for long enough for killing to take place. As [Macdonald] points out, these products are worse than useless, since the low-level antibiotic exposure does re-jigger the bacterial fitness landscape enough to encourage the evolution of antibiotic resistance.

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