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The study tracked more than 900 children under age 3 attending daycares in Almeria, Spain. They divided children into three groups: One group washed hands with soap and water, another with hand sanitizer, and a control group continued the daycare's usual hand-washing practices.
For eight months, children, parents, and staff in the soap-and-water and hand sanitizer groups had to follow strict hand-hygiene routines. This included washing their hands after coming into the classroom; before and after lunch; after playing outside; when they went home; after coughing, sneezing, or blowing their noses; and after changing diapers.
At the end of the study, the researchers calculated that kids in the soap-and-water group missed slightly more days of school than those in the hand sanitizer group. Their risk of getting a respiratory infection such as a cold, sore throat, or cough was also 21 percent higher, and they were more likely to be prescribed antibiotics. Kids in the control group also fared less well than those using hand sanitizer.
But before your family ditches soap and water in favor of hand sanitizer, keep these pointers in mind:
- The findings are based on just one study. A different study, or kids following another set of hand-washing protocols, might achieve different results.
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends washing hands with soap and water as the best way to reduce germs. Soap eliminates certain germs better than hand sanitizer, the agency says.
- Hand sanitizers don't work well on very dirty or greasy hands, according to the CDC. So if your child has been digging for worms in the garden or sticking his hands in cookie dough, soap is probably your best bet.
If you do decide to use hand sanitizer, keep these pointers in mind:
- Use sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol: The CDC says that amount is needed to effectively kill germs (the sanitizer used in the study contained 70 percent alcohol).
- Supervise your kids: Young children may be tempted to drink some hand sanitizers because of their scent and bright color. That can lead to alcohol poisoning. Store sanitizer out of their reach.
Also, whichever method you choose, be sure to follow proper hand-washing guidelines.
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