Hand hygiene: what to look for in a handwash

Posted on 10 May 2016

Handwash, hand sanitiser or soap? Antibacterial or alcohol-free? Liquid or foam? With so many choices, it’s hard to know which one is best. We asked a Mediclinic practitioner to talk us through it.

Washing your hands takes just 20 seconds, yet it can save you from about 200 different diseases. The lesson here is that a) you should wash your hands regularly, and b) you should wash your hands properly. A big part of washing properly lies in using the right soap. And that’s where things start getting complicated. What kind of handwash is best?

There’s no ‘right’ answer to that question. ‘The type of soap used is really dependent on personal preference and the type of hand-washing facility,’ says professional nurse Christine Smedley, infection prevention and control coordinator at Mediclinic Southern Africa. ‘The World Health Organization (WHO) states that liquid, bar, leaf or powdered forms of soap are all acceptable. Bar soap should be kept in racks that facilitate drainage to allow the bars to dry.’

Christine says that in healthcare settings and public facilities, liquid or foam soap in a dispenser is normally preferred and bar soap is generally discouraged, as are reusable towels. That makes sense: there’s not much point in cleaning your hands only to dry them with a towel that has other people’s germs on it!

‘Practically, the product should be easy to use,’ says Christine. ‘That means it should not be too drying, it should contain a moisturising agent, it should not cause skin irritation, it should be pleasant to use and be easily available.’

Christine offers these guidelines to follow next time you’re out shopping for a handwash.

1. Don’t bother with antibacterials. ‘Antibacterial soap is not recommended for general use, and even in the healthcare environment it’s only indicated for specific areas and procedures,’ she says. ‘The use of antibacterial soaps may actually increase the risk of bacteria becoming resistant to antibacterial agents!’

2. What about alcohol-based products? ‘An alcohol-based hand sanitiser is not effective if your hands are visibly soiled or contaminated,’ says Christine. ‘In healthcare facilities, the WHO recommends an alcohol concentration of 60–80% in alcohol-based hand rub formulations. Alcohol-based hand rubs are very effective when used correctly on hands that are not soiled. They also have the advantage of being easy to transport, in case hand-washing facilities are not available.

Christine adds that one should not use handwash and alcohol-based hand rubs directly after each other. ‘The combination may inactivate ingredients and even cause skin irritation, which is not conducive to effective hand hygiene.’

The bottom line: Steer clear of antibacterial soaps, use alcohol-based products wisely, and wash your hands regularly.

Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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