Antibacterial hand wash and flu prevention

Antibacterial handwash, wipes, gels etc will not prevent you from catching a cold or influenza. So “flu kits” that claim to be able to protect you from an epidemic are misleading, to say the least. Those diseases are caused by viruses. Indeed, even washing your hands with hot water and soap (antibacterial or otherwise) will not necessarily prevent flu infection, although it is probably a good idea to wash your hands well and regularly to prevent the spread of other infections. You need a vaccine to stop a virus in its tracks; but even those are not 100% effective and depend on getting the right strain before the disease starts to spread.

Handwashing does stop the spread of fecal-oral pathogens, so is a good thing in that regard; make sure you wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after each bathroom visit. But, just to emphasise, handwashing is wholly ineffective in protecting us from droplet- and air-borne diseases, such as measles, chickenpox, influenza, and tuberculosis.

UPDATE: There is evidence that the risk of flu spreading in a building is lower by about 20% if people practice good hand hygiene (an NYT feature article discussed much of the evidence). The same article, however, also cited a Harvard study that suggested washing hands was not as effective at risk reduction as other studies suggested.


Personal injury lawyer Max Kennerly was not happy with my original suggesstion, so thanks to him for the NYT article. He added in a subsequent comment, “To be clear, for flu it’s vaccine > hand washing > everything else. Vaccine + good hygiene is always best. Hand sanitizer and surface disinfection don’t do much for flu, but, per the NYT studies, hand washing still does.” Jonathan McCrea of NewsTalkScience was also disturbed by the potential for misinterpretation of my suggesting regarding handwashing. “Few enough people are washing their hands in hospitals as is. Claims that even this basic defence is useless are dangerous,” he said and highlighted garbage headlines from the tabloids as being a case in point.

Elin Roberts complained to the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, the ASA, about an advert by one manufacturer that claimed its antibacterial handwash offered flu protection. She was told that, “As handwashing was ‘advice’ it was OK.”


Blog post originally inspired by Twitter conversation with jjsanderson and JamieBGall regarding a “flu kit” sold by a UK pharmacy that contains antibacterial wet wipes etc.

Creative Commons photo credit: jariceiii

MaxKennerly Max Kennerly, Esq. @ @sciencebase To be clear, for flu it’s vaccine > hand washing > everything else. Vaccine + good hygiene is always best.1 hour ago Favorite Undo Retweet Reply
MaxKennerly Max Kennerly, Esq. @ @sciencebase “hand sanitizer and surface disinfection” don’t do much for flu, but, per the NYT studies, hand washing still does.

9 thoughts on “Antibacterial hand wash and flu prevention”

  1. You may want to rethink your stance regarding vaccines and influenza. Available research, and common sense, suggests the influenza vaccine is ineffective. Particularly, in how it is administered each flu season. Not to mention, the practice of cleanliness and being conscious of how you spray saliva from your mouth are the most effective ways of breaking the chain of infection. You must not be aware of how the CDC determines which flu vacceines to use each year. There are many variations of the influenza virus, but not all of them can be administered as a vaccine. So, the CDC, via statistical analysis, chooses three paricular strains for treatment. This doesn’t actually mean they will be most prevalent that year, it only means that the CDC is guessing this will be. Therefore, there is a high likelihood that you may contract a strain of the influenza virus that you have not been vaccinated against… even if you have had your yearly vaccinations.

  2. By “handwash” I was not referring to washing ones hands, although I did mention that that is not 100% flu killer, I was meaning specifically the kinds of relatively impotent gels and wipes that do not remove all pathogens from grubby fingers and from under nails and beneath rings.

  3. I agree and hopefully “fixed” the original post.

    My original truck was not actually with handwashing but the claims on a “flu kit” that antibacterial wet wipes could prevent flu…but I mangled the draft by including handwashing. All that said, washing one’s hands will not prevent infection if someone sneezes in your face or you touch you nose and mouth and then shake hands…

  4. Of course droplet-borne and airborne viruses and bacteria can end up on hands, banisters, faucets, etc. hand washing is an excellent tool in the fight against human-to-human spread of many diseases. I concede the point on hand gels: alcohol-based gels are apparently only effective against agents with membranes, which doesn’t include all viruses. But I believe it’s irresponsible to suggest, with so little evidence, that it’s a “myth” that hand washing aids in the prevention of the spread of the flu. J.B. Herrick, Ph.D.

  5. That doesn’t stop someone sneezing in your face, or picking their nose and then shaking your hand…

    It seems that you have to be very strict about how you wash and dry hands for hand hygiene to be effective.

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