You may have seen a recent article from Time called "Washing Hands in Cold Water Works as Well as Hot Against Germs." If you’re like me, your first thought was probably skeptical. Now more than ever, it’s important to check our sources, and haven’t we been told we had to use warm water our entire lives? Is this really a thing, or should you just ignore it altogether?
Here’s what I found out.
Study’s findings are real
The study may have only had 21 participants, but the experiment was repeated multiple times over a six-month period. First, high levels of harmless bacteria were put on the subject’s hands. They were then told to wash their hands using 60-degree, 79-degree or 100-degree water using 0.5 milliliters, 1 milliliters or 2 milliliters of soap. No matter the temperature of the water or the amount of soap used, the results came out the same: Neither warmer water nor larger amounts of soap changed the amount of bacteria that was killed.
New recommendations on hand washing
The current recommendations say food establishments and restaurants must deliver water at 100 degrees Fahrenheit for hand washing. They say to wet your hands, lather them with soap and scrub for 20 seconds. However, this new study also found that 20 seconds isn't necessary, either. Ten seconds of scrubbing is enough to remove the germs in most cases.
The author of the study, Donald Schaffner, did add this caution: "If you just changed a diaper or you’ve been in the garden or you’re cutting up a raw chicken, don’t think you’re good to go after 10 seconds if you can still see or feel something on your hands. By all means, keep lathering."
So, yes, we should be aware there are exceptions to this rule. However, if you’re just washing your hands after using the bathroom, most of the time, 10 seconds is all you need.
Why you shouldn’t use antibacterial soap
Last year, the Federal Drug Administration banned the over-the-counter sale of antibacterial soaps across the U.S. Why? Because even though Americans have been buying and using these soaps for years, the average consumer never needed them in the first place. Antibacterial soaps are necessary for a hospital environment, for instance, when it’s essential to remove all the bacteria from an emergency room. The average person, however, shouldn’t rid themselves of all their bacteria every time they use the bathroom and go to wash their hands. We actually need those bacteria.
Good and bad bacteria
Since we can’t exactly see the bacteria on our hands, we aren’t really consciously aware of what they’re doing in our bodies. However, they’re responsible for quite a bit. For example, good bacteria help us digest our food and protect us from the bad bacteria that could make us sick, or even, in some cases, kill us. Quite literally, without good bacteria, we would die. They're in our digestive systems, on our skin and in our mouths. Bad bacteria are everywhere in the outside world. Usually, when we encounter bad bacteria, our body is able to fight them off and prevent any problems for us. To do this, we need our good bacteria.
Why we must avoid antibiotic resistance
We’re aware of the need to wash our hands because we’ve been made aware of the potential dangers of bad bacteria. However, there’s currently no way for us to wash away all the bad bacteria without killing at least some of the good bacteria. Antibacterial soaps say they kill 99.9 percent of germs, which was a great marketing strategy. The reality, however, is these soaps kill 99.9 percent of all bacteria, the good as well as the bad. This is part of the reason for the growing problem of antibiotic resistance around the world.
Antibiotics are, of course, used to prevent and treat bacterial infections. However, doctors have been prescribing antibiotics to people for decades now. The drugs and their formulas weren't changed, largely because there didn't seem to be any reason to change them. The drugs worked, and everyone just figured, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Over time, bacteria have adapted in ways that make antibiotic drugs less effective at combating illnesses. As more time passes, bacteria will only adapt more, and at the same time, antibiotic drugs are still being prescribed. Eventually, these antibiotic drugs may lose their effectiveness altogether, but scientists are taking steps to prevent this from happening.
Using antibiotic soaps when regular hand soap will do the trick has only made the problem worse, which is why they’re no longer sold. The more good bacteria we keep active in our bodies, the better. There’s a point when we’re doing more harm than good.
Saving on energy costs
Even though the current guidelines say to scrub our hands for 20 seconds, we now know that can waste a lot of water and energy. Constantly heating water to 100 degrees in restaurants across the entire country consumes a lot of energy.
Scientists do believe both these resources will become scarcer in the years ahead. Spread out over thousands upon millions of instances of hand washing, this adds up to a lot of energy waste.
What temperature should you make your water for hand washing to be most effective? Whichever one you’re most comfortable with. It’s as simple as that.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He's on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.