Harvard Health Letter

What's up…and what's down

What's up...and what's down

Winners and losers in some recent studies.

Washing your hands

Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century lexicographer, said that people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed. Johnson's quote comes to mind — along with the just-do-it shoe company slogan — when a study finds benefits from hand washing.

Researchers from University of Michigan and Columbia University combined 30 separate studies into a meta-analysis of hand washing. The overall results were pretty impressive: improvements in hand washing reduced gastrointestinal illnesses by 31% and the respiratory ones by 21%. The authors wrote that hand-washing habits, rather than the susceptibility of the germs, may explain the difference: people are more likely to wash their hands after going to the bathroom than after they sneeze or cough.

When researchers separated the studies by the type of cleaner, regular soap and antibacterial soap ended up pretty much tied, which given the concerns about antibacterial soaps breeding antibiotic-resistant "super germs," can be considered a victory for plain old soap. Surprisingly, the alcohol-based "sanitizers" came out looking so-so compared with the soaps, antibacterial and otherwise, although numbers were small, so statistically speaking, the results are less reliable.

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