Rethinking hand hygiene: 5 things to know about the little-known world of skin microbiota

While the debate between hand dryers and paper towels in terms of superior hand-washing technique has inspired a public relations war with multiple industry-funded studies, the question at its core is deeply flawed because it is predicated upon the notion that bacteria is bad.

In a new article in The Atlantic, staff writer Sarah Zhang examines the scientific community's growing understanding of the skin microbiota and the short-sided nature of the hand dryer or paper towel debate.

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Here are five key takeaways from Ms. Zhang's piece in The Atlantic.

1. Historically, studies of skin bacteria have consisted of swabbing the skin and growing sampled microbes in a petri dish. However, only 1 percent of microbes can actually grow in such dishes, giving researchers a limited view of the skin's diverse microbiome. DNA sequencing has revealed the nature of the remaining 99 percent.

2. The scientists who study the communities of harmless and even beneficial bacteria living on skin are known as microbial ecologists. The research field is new and has only recently trickled into the world of clinical microbiology, which is primarily concerned with finding ways to eliminate harmful bacteria.

3. "The central insight of the ecological view is that getting rid of harmless or beneficial microbes can have consequences, too. Once they're gone, pathogenic microbes have little competition. Complicating the idea of 'good' versus 'bad' bacteria is that some bacteria are perfectly harmless until for some reason they're not. Staphylococcus aureus, for example, can cause dreaded staph infections. But it also lives in the nose of many people with no ill effects," wrote Ms. Zhang.

4. While DNA sequencing of the skin is more common now than it was in the past, the practice is still limited due to the associated costs. Therefore, due to our slow-growing knowledge, how to create hand hygiene practices that both eliminate harmful germs and nurture helpful ones will likely have be answered by scientists in the future.

5. In regards to the hygienic efficacy of hand dryers versus paper towels, Val Curtis, PhD, a hygiene expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Atlantic, "The important question is, 'What is the health impact of different way[s] of washing hands? It doesn't matter if you get rid of a load of bacteria that's not harmful."

More articles on infection control: 
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Top 10 infection control stories, Jan. 16-20

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