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.”
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.