Follow these six rules for keeping your hands germ-free

Earlier this month, I reminded you of the problems associated with the influenza vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) even admitted that this year’s vaccine is a complete failure. They said it only covers about half of the flu viruses in circulation this year. Nevertheless, they still recommend you get it. Of course, even in a “good” year–when CDC gambles correctly on the annual strains of the virus that will appear–the vaccine suffers from serious shortcomings.

But you can control your exposure to the flu without resorting to an ineffective and dangerous vaccine. The first step is to avoid exposure to the flu and cold viruses altogether. I gave you some tips on how to avoid exposure last week.

But you can’t live your life in a bubble. (And shouldn’t try!) If fact, studies show the more you get out and about on a daily basis, the happier you are.

So today, I’ll give six steps to keeping your hands germ-free this winter–for those times you encounter lots of people…and their germs.

  1. Whenever possible, wash your hands with just soap and water.

First and foremost, I always recommend regular, old-fashioned hand washing with soap and water at this time of year. It’s the safest bet and will kill 99 percent of germs.

  1. If you can’t use soap and water…

You can opt for an ethyl-alcohol hand sanitizer. Ethyl-alcohol is a safe, antimicrobial agent that’s been around and studied for a long time.

Skip the alcohol-free sanitizers. They contain toxic ingredients, such as benzalkonium chloride.

Alcohol does have a drying effect, since it dissolves skin oils, which can be a particular problem in the cold, dry air of winter. Some safe, ethyl-alcohol based products also contain aloe vera and/or vitamin E to help keep skin moist and soft.

  1. Never, ever use a product made with triclosan. Period.
    Triclosan and triclocarban are the most common “antibacterial” chemicals found in consumer products. They prevent the growth of microbes. But they do much more harm than good. In fact, the FDA finally admitted that triclosan played a role in creating antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” (Of course, my daughter found this out from a middle school science experiment 15 years ago!)

When your body absorbs triclosan, it degrades to form dioxin, which has long been associated with serious health problems since its use in the Vietnam War.

Triclosan has been shown to disrupt normal hormone production. And more recent studies show it promotes growth of breast cancer and kills brain cells.

And last but not least, triclosan also kills “good” bacteria, which help keep pathogens at bay. In fact, a CDC study in 2011 showed that regular use among healthcare workers was associated with a 600 percent increase in infections with the dangerous norovirus.

  1. Always read labels and active ingredients list.
    Hand sanitizers often also contain another type of chemicals called parabens. (You may also find parabens in cosmetic products and sunblock.) Experts associate parabens with a variety of serious health problems, including brain toxicity, cancer, hormone disruptions, and skin irritation.

Parabens can be harder to spot on product labels. You’ll have to look for the words methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben, or other words with “paraben” included. Fortunately, you can find numerous paraben-free products nowawadays. Often, a manufacturer will place it on the product’s label.

  1. Avoid any product promoted as “antibacterial.”

Unfortunately, not all products will list ingredients. So, so a safe rule of thumb to follow is to avoid any product that promotes itself as “antibacterial.”

  1. Avoid all products with fragrances.

Hand sanitizers–or any product–that has a fragrance usually contains toxic chemicals. But the industry considers the ingredients of fragrances “proprietary information,” so the stuff is virtually unregulated. You have no way of knowing what’s there from the label. But the nose knows. You need a safe, effective sanitizer. Not a perfume. Research links various fragrances with allergies, respiratory problems, skin irritation, and possible hormonal effects. So skip the scents. And you will come out of flu season smelling like a rose.