Article by: Perry Romanowski

This is a guest post by Shannon Romanowski

While this winter has been mild and there is a spring-like feeling in the air, we are still in the midst of cold and flu season. Clean hands are a good way to prevent the spread of cold and flu causing germs. Hand sanitizers are certainly a good portable solution to keeping hands clean. Lets take a closer work at how they work.

How do hand sanitizers work?

Hand sanitizers are very basic formulas with few ingredients. Most hand sanitizers are simply alcohol thickened to a gel with color and fragrance added to make them more appealing. This isn`t the kind of alcohol you`d find in your local tavern however, it is ethanol or isopropanol. Some formulas contain moisturizing ingredients which can help to slightly offset the drying effects of the alcohol. The rest of the ingredients like vitamins and extracts are used at very small amounts and don’t do much of anything. The way that these products work is simple, you put them on your hands and most living bacteria are instantly killed. The alcohol breaks their cell walls and all their critical organelles leak out. We say most are killed because there are some crafty buggers who can form spores that are immune to alcohol. That`s why companies can only claim to kill 99.9% of germs.

After a few moments, the alcohol evaporates and your hands are briefly sanitized. Of course, that`s when the bacteria population starts to build up again. Think of it like a car windshield when it`s raining. Your hands are the windshield, the rain is bacteria and the sanitizer is the wipers. Sure the wipers remove the rain on one pass, but the rain (or bacteria) just keep coming back.

Are hand sanitizers effective?

Yes, these products work like they say they will, although their claims are supported by measuring microbe populations in a lab, not on human skin. There may be a difference. Washing your hands with soap and water is a better option because it will actually remove all the microbes. It also has the added benefit of removing non-microbial chemicals that can also make you sick. Additionally, overuse of hand sanitizer can dry out skin and irritate scratches or cuts that you may have on your hands.

Bottom Line

Hand sanitizers are a good option in a pinch (or when that yucky public restroom is inevitably out of soap!). However, you can’t beat good old-fashioned soap and water in the battle to fight disease-causing germs.

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4 comments

  1. David

    Sanitizers kills the germs, so now you have dead germs on your hands. How about dirt, oils, and other chemicals, they still are on your hands. Washing with soap cleans your hands and kills germs. If you are gonna eat, washing your hands should be your only option.

  2. Pollyanna

    Rinsing with water alone really doesn’t do much at all to remove dirt, oils, or microbes. Perry has a great post with a micelle illustration from a while back that shows how soaps emulsify particles so they can be rinsed away. Without the emulsifier, the water isn’t effective at cleaning.

    With that being said, skin needs oils and continuously stripping the skin of natual oils can be problematic (I think that was the point the above poster was trying to make).

    Personally, I think sanitizers are a poor substitute for soap and water and shouldn’t be used exclusively. I know many people who use both in conjunction (ie first use a betadine- or CHG-based soap, dry their hands, and the use an alcohol based sanitizer and air-dry).

    As a side note, a few years ago VA hospitals were encouraging their employees to use hand sanitizer exclusively. I’m not sure if that philosophy still exists in those facilities.

  3. Nurchamiel

    I have to say that I totally disagree with this post (except the part about how hand sanitizers are created, which was what I kind of expected, and I found that part particulary intersting).

    Note: where I say ‘soap’ or ‘regular soap’, I mean those bars that can be used for washing hands.

    First of all, I don’t think soap is a very good answer for most consumers. I think that if we create an hypo-allergenic environmental, we get too much problem with our immunesystem. Our immunesystem needs to be triggert because otherwise, the system begins targeting random allergens, causing allergies.

    For that reason, only people where hygiene is a sort of life-or-death situation or where things need to be very accurate (think doctors, scientists) need proper sanitizing. In those fields, proper sanitizing protocols excist already.

    For the rest, for my personal use, I usually wash with just water. All that needs to be rinsed off is the dirt that we can see. Sometimes, I wash with soap to remove the oil build-up on my hands (aka the greasy/dirty feeling).

    Second, I think hand sanitizers are better for killing microbes than regular soap. With soap, there are too many other factors: how many microbes there are in the water or on the towel. The microbes in the water may be killed/removed by the soap, but towels can be so dirty, that wiping your hands may cause your hands to be more “infected” (for lack of a better description) after washing then when they were before. Plus, soap can be quite drying as well.

    Handsaniziters may only kill that 99,9% (although I don’t believe that completly), but that is more than after a wash with soap.

    I know it has to do something with how well somebody washes their hands, but this is my opinion. If I would recommend something besides the ‘wash only with water’ option, I would say it would be something like washing with soap one or twice a day (morning and evening) and use the rest of the day hand saniziters.

    Just my 2 cents.

    1. Perry

      Thanks for your comments. All I can suggest is that people who have looked at this under scientifically controlled conditions have found that soap and water are more effective at removing disease causing microbes better than just water alone.

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