Hand Sanitizer Vs. Hand Washing

A hand sanitizer cannot and should not take the place of proper cleansing procedures with soap and water.

Antibacterial hand sanitizers are marketed to the public as an effective way to wash your hands when traditional soap and water are not available. These “waterless” products are particularly popular with parents of small children. Manufacturers of hand sanitizers claim that the sanitizers kill 99.9 percent of germs. Since you naturally use hand sanitizers to cleanse your hands, the assumption is that hand sanitizer kills 99.9 percent of harmful germs.

Research suggests that this is not the case.

Soap and water kill and flush germs from skin.  Hand sanitizer works by stripping away the outer layer of oil on the skin. This usually prevents bacteria present in the body from coming to the surface of the hand. However, these bacteria that are normally present in the body are generally not the kinds of bacteria that will make us sick. Recent research suggests that hand sanitizers do not significantly reduce the number of bacteria on the hand and in some cases may potentially increase the amount of bacteria on the hand. So, how can the manufacturers make the 99.9 percent claim?

The manufacturers of the products test the products on bacteria-tainted inanimate surfaces; hence the claims of 99.9 percent of bacteria killed. If the products were fully tested on hands, there would no doubt be very different results. Since there is inherent complexity in the human hand, testing hands would be more difficult. Using surfaces with controlled variables is an easier way to obtain some type of consistency in the results.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that hand sanitizers not be used in place of soap and water, but only in addition. A hand sanitizer cannot and should not take the place of proper cleansing procedures with soap and water.

Hand sanitizers can be a useful alternative when the option of using soap and water is not available. However, it needs to be an alcohol-based sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol to ensure that germs are killed. Since hand sanitizers don’t remove dirt and oils on hands, it is best to wipe your hands with a towel or napkin before applying the sanitizer.  Be wary of natural hand sanitizers as they often don’t meet the 60% alcohol standard.

The FDA is currently looking at more data on hand sanitizers and their effectiveness.  They are looking to determine if the products are safe to use on a daily basis and if they are effective in reducing bacteria on skin. Specifically, the agency wants to know more about three ingredients in these products: ethanol (or ethyl alcohol), isopropyl alcohol and benzalkonium chloride. More information is needed about how repeated exposure to these active ingredients impacts the body, the agency noted.

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