By William Butler
Many parents tell their children that washing their hands is one of the most important activates that a person can do. Or, as the saying goes, “cleanliness is next to godliness”. And it would seem that most people would be wise to think so.
Although the germ was described by Girolamo Fracastoro as early as 1546, most people give credit to Louis Pasteur for the discovery of germ theory. His formal experiments in the 1860s transformed the medical profession and the way that we think about disease. And although sanitizing the hands to disable vast amounts of bacteria seems to be a great idea, no theory goes without a little controversy.
Hand sanitizers are quickly becoming a substitute for soap and water and there are several studies which warn against this. Firstly, our bodies do have natural immunities. Our immune systems, when functioning properly, typically do a good job of keeping disease out. But how does this immune system develop? Are there things which can stunt the growth of this system like other systems in our bodies? These were the questions that led Northwestern University researchers to investigate infectious diseases in populations with high levels of disease. Their studies indicated that after a crucial point, clean environments actually led to a decrease in blood inflammation which is an important part of the immune system’s defense against disease.
Although there have been other studies in this area that are beginning to question the effectiveness of compulsive hand washing and clean environments, we cannot conclude that more traditional methods should yet be abandoned. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still advocates hand washing as one of the top defenses against most viruses and bacteria. They advise that hand sanitizers be used as a compliment but that hand washing should be the dominant factor. Hand washing is the interaction between a base and microorganisms. Most hand soaps simply rinse the bacteria off of the skin and down the drain, a simple physical reaction. Antimicrobial, or antibacterial soap, actually deactivates the virus and kills them. It should be noted that this can create stronger bacteria and that the CDC suggests that regular soap should be used for general public applications.
William Butler is a psychology and pre-medical student at the University of Central Florida. He works as a receptionist for UCF Health Services at the College of Medicine in Lake Nona, Fl. He also volunteers for the MIT-2 lab, IMAlive suicide hotline, and UCF Counseling and Psychological Services Student Advisory Council. He is interested in neuroscience, music, and spending time with his friends and family. Despite his wide range of interests, William is NOT a medical or mental health professional and all attitudes expressed are opinions and are not intended to be used as medical advice.