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Name: Jimmy H
Status: other
Age: 30s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: Sunday, October 27, 2002

I have a habit of washing my hands with soap and water vigorously and often (sometimes two times in a row if I don't think I got them clean enough the first time). I realize that too much hand washing can aggravate some skin conditions such as eczema, but can it lead to skin infections of the hand (caused by overexposure to soaps that may remove the skins natural defenses, changes in pH, etc.)?

I just did this lab with my students. I had them culture their hands before and washing their hands. They found that the total number of organisms doesn't really change. The purpose of washing your hands is to remove pathogens (disease causing organisms). You don't want to completely remove bacteria. "Good" organisms provide a barrier that makes it difficult for "bad" organisms to break through. If you take normal precautions, washing hands after using the bathroom and while cooking and handling food, cook your food thoroughly when necessary, etc. you should be fine. And yes, when you constantly wash and scrub your hands you could create overdrying which could crack them and make a portal for normal skin bacteria to gain entrance under the skin where they can cause infection.

Van Hoeck

A lot depends upon the soap you use. Soaps can certainly remove skin oils and result in cracking which can lead to infection. This can be made worse by scrubbing the skin with abrasive soaps or brushes. It all depends upon why you are washing so frequently. An auto mechanic may need to wash hands frequently. A surgeon, too, may need to wash hands more frequently and thoroughly (including under the nails). Food handlers have to take extra care to wash thoroughly -- the same for persons who may come into contact with human or animal feces and/or urine. Some soap is more aggressive than others. The skin does have natural defenses against pathogens that are better left on the skin. For example, the natural oils repel water that may contain infecting agents. For most people in most circumstances a single washing, I believe, is quite adequate.

Vince Calder

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