Wrong number? Photographer: Kevin P. Coughlin/Bloomberg News.
Wrong number? Photographer: Kevin P. Coughlin/Bloomberg News.

“If you’re not a surgeon, you don’t need to wash your hands with antibacterial soap.”

A health researcher once gave me those words of wisdom, which I've since followed. Americans are obsessed with antimicrobial products, to no obvious impact. Even before we started dousing everything with triclosan, America was notably plague-free.

That’s because ordinary soap and hot water do a very good job of removing harmful bacteria (much of the benefit simply comes from the friction, which is why you should dry your hands with paper towels, not those air machines). You may still be vulnerable to colds and other minor inconveniences, but the common cold is so easy to get that unless you’re planning on keeping your hands immersed in a hand sanitizer bath, you’re probably still going to get one.

In fact, when I was writing about antibiotic resistance, several experts pointed out to me that our hand sanitization fetish may have downsides. You have more bacterial cells in your body than people cells. Some of those bacteria are freeloaders, but many are species that we’ve learned to live with, or even come to rely on. Taking antibiotics can throw that out of balance -- women know that antibiotics can trigger vaginal yeast infections, but they can also cause more serious problems such as out-of-control Clostridium difficile infections, which occur when antibiotics kill off “healthy" bacteria in the gut.

Your skin also has a healthy bacterial balance, and dousing it with unnecessary antibiotics is not a good idea. I’m not saying you shouldn’t wash your hands frequently -- that’s one way that we’ve really reduced food-borne disease. But unless you’re immune-compromised, a health-care professional or a parent tending to a germy child, my takeaway was that you should wash after you use the bathroom (especially guys), wash before you eat and wash if your hands get dirty. Otherwise, give it a rest, and lay off the antibacterial soap. If you need to use a hand sanitizer, pick one that’s alcohol-based.

Now the Food and Drug Administration is considering banning antibacterial soaps, because the chemicals in them may not be so healthy for our bodies. I won’t comment on the science, but I will say that if solid research shows that these chemicals disrupt metabolic and reproductive development, then there’s probably a strong case for banning them in consumer products -- in part because they offer so little added benefit to ordinary consumers. Unless you spend your life around people with deadly diseases, you’re probably going to do just fine with ordinary soap and water.