Things you Should know about Hand Sanitizers

Curious about the hand-sanitizing products that are popping up in public places across the country? Here’s what you should know about hand sanitizers and your health

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), 80 percent of common infections, including the H1N1 flu virus, can be spread through contaminated hands. That’s why the PHAC and the World Health Organization (WHO) are stressing proper hand hygiene as an important first-line defense against the spread of swine flu.

While proper handwashing technique is a vital part of keeping yourself healthy, good old soap and water aren’t always around when you need them (say, when you get an unexpected hug from a runny-nosed preschooler on the playground). That’s where alcohol-based sanitizers come to the rescue. The PHAC recommends hand sanitizers that contain between 60 and 80 percent alcohol as “an excellent” way to clean your hands when you’re not near a sink. Here’s what you should know about them.

1. Hand sanitizers are effective

If your hands aren’t actually grimy, the best way to clean them is to use hand sanitizer, says James Scott, a microbiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.“[A sanitizer] cleans your hands much better than soap and water, so it reduces the bacterial burden to a much greater extent than soap and water,” he says. “And your hands tend to stay cleaner longer than if you were to use soap and water.”

Not convinced that a bottle of gel can really get your paws squeaky clean? Scott was also doubtful. “For a long time, I was a skeptic about them, but as evidence started to emerge on the effectiveness of these alcohol-based hand sanitizers, I’m sold on them,” he says. Take the 1991 study cited by the WHO in their guidelines on hand hygiene in health care that found that alcohol-based hand sanitizer was more effective than plain soap and water in preventing the transmission of bacteria from the hands of healthcare workers to patients’ catheters.

2. Hand sanitizers don’t cause super-bacteria

The idea that frequent use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers will make bacteria resistant to treatment is bogus, Scott stresses. “The [way sanitizers work] is based on cell-membrane disruption by the alcohol, and that’s not something that bacterium can acquire resistance to. It’s not physically possible,” he says.

3. Hand sanitizers are easier on your skin than soap and water

“Most of the modern hand sanitizers have emollients in them that will actually improve skin condition,” says Scott. While that may seem counterintuitive because effective sanitizers contain so much alcohol, several studies have proven that these formulas are actually better for skin than soap. For instance, a 2004 study compared the effectiveness of alcohol-based hand sanitizers and antibacterial soap for nurses who worked in neonatal intensive care units in New York. The study found that while nurses were using the hand sanitizer, their skin condition was much better than when they used the antibacterial soap to clean their hands.

4. There’s a correct way to use hand sanitizers

To use a hand sanitizer effectively, make sure your hands are free of visible grime and dirt before applying the product. Then, apply a palm-full of product and rub vigorously for 20 to 30 seconds, making sure to distribute the sanitizer between your fingers, under your nails and jewelry, on your wrists and on the backs of each hand. When your hands are dry, you’re good to go.

Never rinse your hands with water or wipe them with a towel after using a hand sanitizer—this will counteract the effect of the product.

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