Germs are everywhere, especially on human hands. Washing with soap and running water is still the best method for reducing bacteria, but it isn’t always an option. Hand sanitizer is a portable weapon in the fight against infectious diseases, no sink required. Placing dispensers in easily accessible locations near high-touch surfaces makes for a safer workplace.
The biodiversity of microorganisms is vast and varied. Thus, the effectiveness of hand sanitizers isn’t universal across all species of microbes. Hand sanitizers can kill up to 99.99% of most common germs that can make you sick. However, if the Norovirus is going around, wash your hands because alcohol won’t effectively remove it.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends using products with 60-95% ethanol or isopropanol (isopropyl) concentration. Alcohol-based sanitizers work by denaturing bacteria and viruses. The alcohol-free varieties may reduce the number of germs on your hand without killing them all. Products with concentrations below 60% aren’t effective at breaking down microbes. A research study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases suggests that low-concentration gels spread germs around without killing them. However, too much alcohol is not a good thing. Concentrations above 95% are less useful because alcohol needs a certain amount of water to denature cells.
Just like with washing with soap and water, there is a proper way to use hand sanitizer. For alcohol-based sanitizers to work, they must be rubbed all over the hands until completely dry (about 20 to 30 seconds). Don’t rinse or wipe off the product, or it won’t work as well.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), alcohol quickly kills germs when applied in the correct amount. However, “if hands feel dry after being rubbed together for less than 10–15 seconds, it is likely that an insufficient volume of product was applied.”
Alcohol-based hand rubs are better for your skin than soap and water. Soap strips moisture and oils from the skin, while Purell contains emollients that moisturize the skin. According to the CDC, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are the preferred method for healthcare workers. Doctors and nurses have to clean their hands frequently. Hand sanitizers are easier to apply during the course of care. It conditions the skin and causes less irritation and dryness than soap and water. A 2005 research study found when nurses used hand sanitizer, they had improved skin condition and no change in infection rates compared to washing with soap and water.
While hand sanitizers are quicker and easier than soap and water, they don’t replace proper washing. The CDC recommends using hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available. Even if you use Purell, you still need to take a trip to the sink:
Hand sanitizers may not replace hand washing, but, let’s face it, plenty of people don’t wash their hands properly anyway. Dispensers placed at strategic locations around the building can reduce the spread of infections. When purchasing for your school or workplace, look for products with 60-95% concentration and added moisturizers.