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Hand Sanitizers Don't Stop Spread of Sickness

By Sierra Black |

2485644248_d29d9031bf_mHave you been slathering yourself and your kids in hand sanitizer this winter? Most of us have. Those little bottles of alcohol-based gel have become ubiquitous. We find them at the grocery store where we go to grab a cart, at the movie theater when we go to grab a seat, near the doorway of any shopping center and installed in every classroom. In all, three quarters of Americans use six or more germ-killing products every day.

There’s good news for those of us who’ve been rolling our eyes at all the literal hand-wringing we’re expected to do over germs these days. According to a new article in Slate, all those products don’t work to stop the spread of colds and flus.

Slate’s bottom line:

So you can believe all the germ hype and end up like the obsessive-compulsive billionaire Howard Hughes. Or you can follow the data and get a flu shot, wash your hands sensibly after using the bathroom and around meals, and stop wasting money on hand sanitizers.

What are they calling hype?

For one thing, not all hand sanitizers are created equal. Some contain over 60% alcohol, while others have less than 40%. Higher concentrations of alcohol make for more effective germ-killing.

Even the high quality products like Purell don’t work as well as washing your hands. Fatty acids and proteins are particularly resistant to alcohol-based gels. If your hands are soiled, or you’ve been working in a kitchen, you really want to wash them with soap and water.

Finally, as Slate points out and several studies have found, even when high quality hand sanitizers are used rigorously, they don’t cut down on the number of respiratory infections and mild illnesses suffered by children in homes or child care centers. They may kill the germs on your skin at the moment, but little kids touch so much stuff, including each other, that they do little to contain the spread of infections.

I’ve never believed the hype around these gels, and this article is like a breath of fresh air to me. That said, I do use them. I keep a bottle of hand sanitizer in my purse, and one on the changing table in my playroom. Why? Because sometimes Stuff Happens and I can’t get to a sink right away. I figure in those cases, the gel is better than nothing. I don’t use them very often though. I think I’m still working my way through the pint-size pump bottle I was given at my first baby shower six years ago.

What about you? Do you love your waterless hand sanitizer, or are you happy to see the hype around it taken down a notch?

Photo: ParanoidNotAndroid

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About Sierra Black


Sierra Black

Sierra Black lives, writes and raises her kids in the Boston area. She loves irreverence, hates housework and wants to be a writer and mom when she grows up. Read bio and latest posts → Read Sierra's latest posts →

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13 thoughts on “Hand Sanitizers Don't Stop Spread of Sickness

  1. Julia says:

    I hate the hype about the gels and about antibacterial hand soap (which ISN’T, unless you wash your hands properly, in which case you’re just as well off using regular hand soap). That said, I too carry a little with me because, as you say, Stuff Happens. I also like to wipe down the handle of the grocery cart, if the wipes are available, because honestly, a lot of other people out there can be kind of gross in terms of basic hygiene and sanitation. :)

  2. LogicalMama says:

    I carry CleanWell. It’s a natural sanitizer made from Thyme oil which was historically used in surgical settings to sterilyze equipment. More often than not, we try to wash our hands with soap and water, but in the event of an emergency, we have the CleanWell and since it’s not an alcohol-based sanitizer, it smells wonderful, it’s not drying and it doesn’t have the same ingredients as your average sanitizer so I believe it’s more effective and far better for our children and the environment– but that’s just my opinion!

  3. LogicalMama says:

    Oh, and I have never bought into the hype of hand sanitizer… in fact, I am in the camp that thinks all these “antibacterial” soaps, lotions, sanitizers are what is making us sicker and responsible for the antibiotic resistant strains that are showing up!

  4. Eric says:

    Remember LogicalMama, the alcohol based hand sanitizers are anticeptics not antibiotics. They kill stuff but don’t create antibiotic resistance. Now some of the antibacterial soaps aren’t anticeptics. Really, hand sanitzers are just another tool in the shop of disease control, not the holy grail.

  5. susanna eve says:

    I also carry sanitzer around in my purse and backpack for exactly the moments you describe. Much prefer handwashing but like having the sanitizer as a back up plan when we can’t get to water and soap.

  6. susanna eve says:

    I also carry sanitzer around in my purse and backpack for exactly the moments you describe. Much prefer handwashing but like having the sanitizer as a back up plan when we can’t get to water and soap.

  7. susanna eve says:

    I also carry sanitzer around in my purse and backpack for exactly the moments you describe. Much prefer handwashing but like having the sanitizer as a back up plan when we can’t get to water and soap.

  8. Louise says:

    When the H1N1 virus was first making the rounds, they distributed a bottle of hand sanitizer to everyone that works in my building. I have yet to make much of a dent in my bottle. I wash my hands (well) at all of the appropriate times, and make sure my kids do, but…meh…I guess I just can’t get too worked up about germs. Perhaps it’s because my kids and I have rarely been sick. And I’m not crazy about slathering my winter-dry hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer.

  9. Melanie says:

    There were bottles of the stuff all over Olympic venues. The “Official” hand sanitiser, of course.

    I have a bottle in my bag for when Stuff Happens, but definitely prefer a good scrub with soap and water.

  10. Bean's Mom says:

    Huh! I work at a hospital, and these hand sanitizers are everywhere! I wonder why they bother if they are not effective. And the way most people wash their hands is not too effective either because they don’t scrub their hands for long enough, or they are not vigorous about it.

  11. [...] Hand Sanitizers Don’t Stop Spread of Sickness [...]

  12. [...] Hand Sanitizers Don’t Stop Spread of Sickness [...]

  13. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    The hand sanitizers don’t even come close to doing the job in hospitals. Whenever I or anyone I love has been in a hospital, I insist that the first thing a medical professional does is wash their hands. Google Dr. Peter Provonost… good stuff about him out there…

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