Healthy Hands Part II: Soap and sanitizer

Posted by Peggy Decker, M.D.
December 01, 2015

Soapy Hands_Medium

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, frequent hand washing is the No. 1 way to prevent the spread of infections. But what kind of soap is appropriate? And what about using hand sanitizers?

Why not antibacterial soap?

The simple answer is that plain soap and running water coupled with good technique are just as good against common childhood respiratory and stomach (GI) viruses and bacteria as antibacterial soap. Plain soap doesn’t induce the risk of creating resistant organisms, according to a recent review article published by Infectious Diseases Society of America. Health care settings, such as hospitals and clinics, may have different recommendations. Comprehensive information is available from the Centers for Disease Control.

Safety of hand sanitizers

Because of the high alcohol content, there are several safety concerns with hand sanitizer. Kids shouldn’t use it unsupervised. Some experts recommend limiting how often young children use hand sanitizer, and it should not be used on children under two years of age.  Alcohol is flammable, so sanitizer needs to be stored safely away from flames and heat sources. There are strict guidelines for placement in schools and daycare centers to reduce the risk of fire.

Due to high alcohol content in hand sanitizer, alcohol poisoning and intoxication is possible if a large amount is absorbed by drinking, using on damaged skin or using on babies who don’t have a fully developed skin barrier. Because the alcohol concentration is high (more than hard liquor) and young kids have a low body weight, prevention of accidental or purposeful ingestion is important. Supervision of hand sanitizer use (dime-size amount is all that’s needed) and safe storage are important. If accidental ingestion of more than one squirt of hand sanitizer occurs, call the poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

Despite the risks of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, children should avoid alcohol-free hand sanitizer due to concerns about resistant organisms with the antibacterial agents benzalkonium chloride and the possible toxic degradation products of triclosan.

Remember, frequent hand washing keeps germs at bay and can go a long way in protecting your child from viruses and bacteria. By teaching your child the importance of hand hygiene and how to properly clean their hands, you can help them establish healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

Peggy Decker, M.D., is a pediatrician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing.

View Healthy Hands Part I



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