Using Hand Sanitizer: Does The Stuff Really Help?

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. May 7th 2016

Hand sanitizers are cleaners that can be used without water to help disinfect hands. The popularity of hand sanitizers has grown significantly over the years, and they are present in places such as households, cruise ships, hospitals and child care centers. Most people understand keeping hands germ-free is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of illnesses. Hand sanitizers are convenient, quick and portable, which makes them an easy substitute for washing your hands. Although washing your hands with soap and water to eliminate germs is often recommended, there are some instances where using hand sanitizer is an effective alternative.

How Hand Sanitizers Work

There are two main types of hand sanitizers: alcohol based and non-alcohol based. Alcohol based hand sanitizers usually contain ethyl, while non-alcohol based hand sanitizers contain triclosan, which is classified as an antimicrobial.

Both types of hand sanitizers work by neutralizing and inhibiting the growth of bacteria and viruses. Although some germs can be destroyed by using hand sanitizer, they do not remove bacteria from the hands the same way washing hands with soap and water does.

[Related: How To Properly Wash Your Hands]

It is important to understand, in order for alcohol based hand sanitizers to be effective in killing bacteria or viruses, they must contain at least 60 percent ethyl. Some sanitizers on the market contain less than 60 percent alcohol and are not recommended.

Some people choose to use non-alcohol based hand sanitizer believing it may not dry-out hands as much. However, possible health concerns regarding the antimicrobial agent, triclosan, are being investigated.

Possible Health Risks Of Triclosan

While additional studies are needed, some research has shown triclosan, which is often present in hand sanitizers, may have some risks associated with it. Initial studies completed on animals have indicated triclosan may impair immune system function.

Also, according to The University of Colorado at Denver, research has shown triclosan may cause changes at the cellular level. These changes affected muscular strength, which could negatively impact skeletal and heart muscle function. The results were especially alarming because the mice used in the studies had a 25 percent decrease in heart muscle function with only 20 minutes of exposure to triclosan. Although studies were conducted on animals, it has prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to agree additional research is needed to determine safety.

There are also questions about whether continual use of antibacterial products containing triclosan may cause antibiotic-resistant germs to develop. In the past, overuse of antibiotics caused bacteria to mutate and new strains have developed. The fear is the same thing will happen with bacteria being constantly exposed to antibacterial products.

Sanitizers Don’t Kill All Bacteria

One important thing to understand about hand sanitizer is it does not kill all types of bacteria. For example, clostridium difficile, which is a bacterium that can cause severe diarrhea, is not destroyed by alcohol based hand sanitizers. Hand washing with soap and water is needed to kill clostridium.

In the past, some manufacturers of hand sanitizers have advertised that their product prevents the spread of bacteria and viruses, such as the H1N1 flu and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). According to The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there is insufficient evidence to prove hand sanitizers help prevent the spread of either illness.

The FDA has warned consumers should not get a false sense of security using hand sanitizers and believe they are effective against all types of bacteria. Hand sanitizers should not be thought of as a replacement for washing your hands.

Should You Use Hand Sanitizers?

Although washing your hands with soap and water is often preferred to using hand sanitizer, there are some instances where hand sanitizers are a good idea. For example, if you do not have access to soap and water in situations such as camping, hiking or riding in a vehicle, using a hand sanitizer may be an adequate substitute for washing your hands.

If there are circumstances where you need to use a hand sanitizer, it is important to use it correctly to get the maximum benefit. When using a hand sanitizer be sure to use enough of the product to cover all areas of the hands including between the fingers and the back of the hands. Rub your hands together for about 15 to 20 seconds and allow your hands to air dry.

Although there is not enough evidence to conclusively state triclosan is harmful, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration agrees more research is needed to determine any negative health effects. In some circumstances, using a hand sanitizer is better than nothing and may help prevent the spread of illness, but it should not be a continual replacement for hand-washing. When available, good old fashioned soap and water is the best way to clean your hands and remove germs.


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