by Donna Q on May 8, 2012

When you use antibacterial cleanser to wash your hands, are you waiting for two whole minutes before rinsing it off?  If not you may want to consider sticking with plain old soap.  The bactericidal properties of the cleansers need to remain in contact with the bacteria for two minutes to be certain that the all have been killed.  This is also true for the antibacterial cleansers we use in the home.  They have to come in contact with the bacteria with enough strength and for a long enough period of time to actually kill the germs.  Do we know for a fact that this is happening every time?


Antibacterial cleansers

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There is evidence that suggests that washing with antibacterial cleansers, but not allowing the cleanser to contact the bacteria in a strong enough concentration, for a long enough period of time will contribute to the creation of “superbugs” or antibacterial resistant bacteria.  These superbugs are created when they are exposed to the antibacterial agents but are not killed.  The antibacterial agent leaves behind a diluted residue which is in contact with the bacteria.   The bacteria then develop a resistance to the agent, making them tougher to kill.  It is a true depiction of the old adage “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”.  Additionally, these resistant bacteria then can share their resistance with other non-resistant bacteria, making them resistant, too.  All of these superbugs have offspring that are resistant as well, and colonies grow rapidly. I write more on this phenomenon in an article in Critical Care Nurse Journal, June 2011.

Natural occurring antibacterial agents

Lemon and alcohol do not leave a residue so do not leave an environment where resistance can develop, but they need to come into contact with the germs for a much longer period of time, up to fifteen minutes.  Over time, the citric acid in the lemon breaks down the cell membrane of the germ, killing it. I have not found any documentation that states that lemon is effective against resistant bacteria.

Isopropyl alcohol pulls the insides out of the bacteria (also viruses) but needs to be a strong enough concentration to do this.  Most rubbing alcohols are only 40% concentration, and need up to 10 minutes of contact to kill germs.   Isopropyl alcohol at 70% kills many germs in less than one minute, but there is much evidence that states Isopropyl alcohol will not kill resistant bacteria.

Chlorine bleach

Chlorine bleach leaves no residue as well, and will literally explode the bacteria on contact.  It is, however, extremely toxic and corrosive, and needs to be stores in a safe place.  Due to its corrosive nature, the bleach cannot be used on many surfaces, and only in very low concentrations on skin.  (Even then not recommended)


Hand sanitizers

Though hand sanitizers that leave the cleaning substance on your hands contact the bacteria for an acceptable period of time and can be effective, The Center for Disease Control (CDC) warns that hand sanitizers are not effective when hands are visibly dirty.  You also want to be very careful around small children and pets with these sanitizers.  Many can be dangerous if ingested in quantities larger that the residue left on hands as they contain alcohol and Triclosan.  Triclosan is classified as a pesticide by the EPA, which makes sense as it is a germicidal agent.   In a spray bottle, lemon juice can be very effective in disinfecting play areas and is non toxic.


This leaves us, then, with the good, old fashioned soap.  Soap works by decreasing the surface tension of water, surrounding dirt, bacteria, viruses, and any other unwanted substances, and lifting off the offending substances, taking them away down the drain.    What could be simpler?  Well, maybe not that simple.  Some things to remember when washing with soap:

  1. Friction counts!  You do have to loosen the unwanted materials in order to wash them away.  Scrubbing is definitely needed, and using clean washcloths on skin produces better friction than skin to skin.
  2. There is a time element here as well.  Make certain you wash long enough so that all the nooks and crannies are taken care of.  The birthday song rule is a good rule of thumb when washing hands.  You should wash your hands long enough to sing the entire birthday song.  This is wash time alone, doesn’t include drying time.
  3. If you use a bar soap, remember to soap up and rinse off the bar before using it and then again rinse before putting it back.  You don’t want anything that was left behind on the bar coming to you and you don’t want to leave anything behind.  If you use a pump dispenser, it’s not a bad idea to also do this with the dispenser occasionally.  Soap dishes can also be a breeding ground for bacteria, so clean them often.
  4. If you used a dirty hand to turn on the faucet, don’t use a clean one to turn it off.  That will just defeat the purpose!  Use a washcloth that you will then toss into the hamper, or a paper towel to turn off the faucet.


The CDC website has lots of great information on hand washing and other tips of how to stay germ free.  To visit click here.  The important thing to remember when getting rid of germs is to be logical.  Use cleansing products the way they were meant to be used, and don’t expect any product to be foolproof.

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