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I recently heard from a preschool teacher that they now have kids wash their hands many times throughout the day. When they enter the classroom, before they eat, after they eat, after playing on the playground, after blowing their nose, after going to the bathroom. And this is all done with antibacterial soap.

We tell people to hold a paper towel when turning off the faucet or opening the door of the bathroom.

Similarly, hand sanitizer dispensers appear everywhere today.

My grandparents didn't live this way. Has something changed? Does this sanitizing really make people healthier?

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Related question: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/3222/… –  Larian LeQuella May 15 '11 at 17:53
    
Are you asking about hand-washing in preschool, specifically? Or about hand-washing in society at large, generally: e.g. in adult society too? Your last sentence said "people" rather than "children", so I'm guessing the latter. –  ChrisW May 15 '11 at 18:19
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I can't remember the details exactly, but there have been studies done in hospitals and they usually find that the single most effective way to prevent nosocomial infections (hospital infections) is doctors washing their hands. However, the anti-bacterial nature of certain soaps has nothing to do with it, and is probably counter-effective in promoting the public health, because they induce immunity in unharmful baceteria, who then pass it on to other pathogenic bacteria by means of gene exchange via conjugation. It is dermabrasion more than anything else that makes washing hands effective. –  Uticensis May 15 '11 at 18:52
    
I think I used dermabrasion incorrectly as a technical term in the above; more accurate would be "the scrubbing away of dead skin cells and the bacteria who live on their surface makes hand-washing effective." –  Uticensis May 15 '11 at 18:56
    
Personally, I think George Carlin says it best in this short stand-up routine, "Fear of Germs". (Warning: This clip has strong language.) –  JYelton May 18 '11 at 15:35
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2 Answers

See this related answer.

To answer your specific questions:

Has something changed?

Well, we have access to these products now, whereas we didn't before.

Does this sanitizing really make people healthier?

That is a subject of debate. While it can prevent rapid spread of some things, keep in mind that anti-bacterial soaps should only have specific uses.

The CDC has concerns about the prevalent use of these products.

Scientists are concerned that the antibacterial agents will select bacteria resistant to them and cross-resistant to antibiotics. Moreover, if they alter a person's microflora, they may negatively affect the normal maturation of the T helper cell response of the immune system to commensal flora antigens; this change could lead to a greater chance of allergies in children. As with antibiotics, prudent use of these products is urged. Their designated purpose is to protect vulnerable patients.

Also, there is some concern as outlined by the hygiene hypothesis (WP). However, that is mostly associated with childhood immunities and allergies as opposed to the effects on adults.

“The natural immune system does not have as much to do as it did 50 years ago because we’ve increased our efforts to protect our children from dirt and germs,” says McMorris.

“Allergies are on the rise because our society has changed the way we live. As a result, people with allergies are having children with others who have allergies, which in turn creates a natural increase in the prevalence of allergies in our society.

The bottom line on this hypothesis is that more research is required.

He (Richard G. Barbers, M.D., USC professor of medicine at the Keck School) also gives credence to the hygiene hypothesis in that "we may be over-protecting kids, and their immune systems, consequently, do not become well-developed."

Barbers notes that only time and a lot more research will tell whether the hygiene hypothesis is valid, and whether, once again, parents should let their kids play in the dirt.

It is generally understood that interaction with beneficial germs is good for you. However, normal cleaning will not destroy these germs since they reside within you (unless his germaphobia induces him to take antibiotics). The human immune response doesn't particularly work that way.

The investigators show that "good" bacteria in the gut keep the immune system primed to more effectively fight infection from invading pathogenic bacteria. Altering the intricate dynamic between resident and foreign bacteria - via antibiotics, for example -- compromises an animal's immune response, specifically, the function of white blood cells called neutrophils.

Using too many anti-bacterial soaps has raised quite a few concerns even still.

Soaps and lotions that include antibacterial agents have no benefit over ordinary soap and water, but more research is needed to allay or substantiate concern that these substances may be leading to increased rates of antibiotic resistance. This is the conclusion of the Food and Drug Administration's Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee, which met last month to consider the use of these products outside of the health care setting.

"In the absence of proven benefit, there's no real reason to encourage the use of these products," said Alastair J.J. Wood, MD, committee chair and associate dean at Tennessee's Vanderbilt Medical School.

That is not to say that their use should be discontinued entirely. Two MDs weigh in and conclude:

Opt for regular soap and water, unless you’re at a hospital or doctor’s office, where it’s best to use antibacterial soap. But if you’re out and about and antibacterial soap is the only kind around, it’s fine to wash with it—and it’s worth keeping in the kitchen to use after handling raw meat.

Hope that helps.

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Does this sanitizing really make people healthier?

A purpose (the reason why they advertise hand-washing here, as a public safety measure) is to reduce the spread of epidemics: e.g. of influenza.

So it's not that it will make you measurably healthier each day, but it might keep you from getting sick.

My grandparents didn't live this way. Has something changed?

Well, yes: any number of things. More air travel; different factory farming techniques (resulting in e.g. 'swine flue' and 'bird flu' in humans); increased life expectancy. You could almost ask instead whether there's anything that hasn't changed.


Hand-washing to avoid the flu, by the way, presumably doesn't have to be with antibacterial soap: the flu is a virus.

Daycares (children) are a slightly unusual situation: children put their hands in their mouths (and eyes and noses, and on the ground, and everywhere else) more than adults do, they have immature immune systems, and they're in a (crowded) institutional setting (not entirely unlike a hospital), e.g. they're sharing toys.

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Regarding reduce the spread of epidemics: e.g. of influenza. keep in mind that many marketed products are anti-bacterial, and things that consumers are trying to avoid are viral. Hence the CDC concern about the over use of these products. You are correct in that the proper use of sanitizers and anti-bacterial products will help, sadly the population at large doesn't seem to know how to use these products correctly. :) –  Larian LeQuella May 15 '11 at 18:33
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Nice addition. :) –  Larian LeQuella May 15 '11 at 22:40
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I do have a bone to pick with your answer. You state: they have immature immune systems regarding children. This is a widely held misconception and rather false. I'm surpriesed larian let you get away with it! :) –  Brightblades Feb 14 '12 at 14:16
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