Hand-washing is the gold standard for health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control proclaims that keeping hands clean is “one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.”
It’s essentially true. But warnings have emerged in recent years that we may be over-sanitizing and potentially lowering our resistance to essential bacteria. Stories with headlines like “How being too clean might make us sick” and “Why I’m breaking up with hand sanitizer,” as well as research published in academic journals, question if we’ve almost become too clean, possibly setting ourselves up for even more health risks.
So amid this mixed messaging, how frequently are we supposed to be washing our hands? And when should we put the hand sanitizer down?
HuffPost checked in with some experts to get to the bottom of all of your hand washing woes. Here’s what you should know:
Everyday hand washing won’t kill your good bacteria ― but overdoing it can be harmful
“What the science says right now is… the normal (healthy) bacteria that live on the skin are very important [and] washing doesn’t remove them,” said Richard Gallo, founding chair at the department of dermatology at the University of California-San Diego.
Gallo said that “when you are born, it looks like the bacteria enter into your skin and sort of set up permanent residence” that isn’t affected by using hand sanitizer throughout the day, taking a daily shower and washing your hands after using the restroom. But overdoing it can take a toll.
“At an extreme, you start drying out the hands, you start damaging the skin, then you start getting at the normal healthy bacteria,” Gallo said.
Samer Blockmon, an internal medicine specialist at the Georgia-based Piedmont Healthcare system, agreed that excessive hand washing can make you vulnerable to illness.
“If you wash your hands too often, you are also removing the healthy oils and good bacteria that defend against disease,” she said.
Blockmon added that in her practice, she occasionally sees patients who use hand sanitizing gel to the point where their hands are cracking. “That actually gives bacteria an easier way to get into their bodies,” she warned.
Signs you’re overwashing include itchy, flaky skin, as well as pain and redness, Gallo said.
“Basically, if people are washing or hand sanitizing and their hands look healthy, then they are probably not doing it too much,” he said. “They may be overdoing it from a sense that it is unnecessary but if there is no apparent damage, there is no clear reason to say that what they are doing to themselves is hurting them.”
Some antibacterial products may not even be doing much good
While hand-washing is an important way to defend against disease-causing agents, it’s also important to understand that not all exposure to germs and bacteria are inherently bad, said Josh Axe, a Nashville, Tennessee-based natural health expert and clinical nutritionist. He noted the “hygiene hypothesis,” which argues that over-sanitizing can negatively affect the body’s natural immune system.
Other health experts support this theory, but added that unless a child grows up in a sterile bubble, everyday life should provide ample opportunity for exposure to immune building germs.
“There are bacteria on our skins, in our throats, in our noses at all times, and the vast bulk of our feces is billions upon billions of bacteria,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Gallos added ”that a child growing up in a society that uses a lot of sanitizers and antibiotics is much more likely to get allergies than a baby who is born into a society that doesn’t do that. So from a developmental perspective, it looks like our fixation on trying to get rid of germs from the environment does have negative consequences.”
Gallo also said antibacterial soaps don’t work as well as they claim to anyway.
“They have really limited effect on the skin,” he said. “They work much better on a countertop or on a dish than they do on the skin to kill the bacteria.”
The Food and Drug Administration backs that up, noting that washing with antibacterial soap is no more effective than “regular soap and water.”
When you should actually wash
Is all this to say that the ritual of washing your hands after using the bathroom is worthless? Absolutely not, experts stressed. But beyond that, use common sense.
“You should wash before meals, if you are sick and you cough into your hands, before and during food preparation,” Blockmon said.
You may also want to cleanse up “before touching your face and even before engaging in sexual activity,” said Susie Wang, a skincare chemist and founder of the San Jose, California-based natural beauty product line 100% PURE.
A study by Michigan State University revealed that 95 percent of people failed to wash their hands correctly after using the bathroom, resulting in the potential spread of harmful germs that can cause an array of infections.
Schaffner recommended using warm water and getting your hands nice and sudsy.
“The soap emulsifies the bacteria. It surrounds those bacteria and then washes them down the drain,” he explained.
Make sure you’re also lathering up long enough. Singing “Happy Birthday” twice through should be plenty of time, said Karen Salmansohn, a New York-based wellness expert and author of Life Is Long! And if you don’t have access to soap and water, hand sanitizer can be a good backup plan, Schaffner said.
So the bottom line is, yes, wash after you hit the restroom ― “especially after number two,” Schaffner said ― and whenever else it’s obviously called for. But if you bend down to pick a pen off the floor or give your dog a pat on the head or just generally carry on with your day, you are free to go sanitizer free. (After all, there are germs ― even fecal matter ― on everything. And despite this, you’re OK!)