Hand Sanitizers: Good or Bad?

Grace Cooney

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Hand Sanitizer
Hand Sanitizer

I’ve been an advocate for hand sanitizer in all its forms, gel, foam and liquid, for many years and watching Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 movie Contagion would scare anyone into almost never leaving their house with the amount of pathogens and viruses that surround us on a daily basis. Call me a hygiene freak, but I am addicted to it! It makes me feel more comfortable handling food or touching handrails, whether in college or on the go, knowing my hands are clean.

In my four years in the University of Limerick and in my last six months of being in Griffith College, there has not been a day where I do not have the anti-septic hand wash in my bag and I know I probably use it more than anyone would probably deem necessary. The question is though, is it actually doing me any good? Am I leaving myself open to more viruses by using it all the time and becoming immune to it? I have always considered it to be just good sense and I guess in this lies the problem.

Hand Sanitizer comes in various forms, gel, foam and liquid, and is used generally as an alternative to hand washing with soap and water. Consumer alcohol based hand sanitizers are antiseptic products used to avoid transmission of pathogens. The level of alcohol varies between 60% and 85% alcohol, with 62% the most commonly used level of alcohol is these products. They kill most bacteria, fungi and stop some viruses.
In recent times, however, they are increasingly getting a bad reputation. Whether it be “you can become immune to hand sanitizer” or it “strips the skin off your hands”, none of which I believe to be true, mainly because if this were the case wouldn’t they be off the shelves in Boots, Tesco and any pharmacy in the world? And yet somehow they are still here. On my recent J1 to the States, where I lived in New York for the best part of 3 months, it was something you never left the house without. Hopping in and out of the Subway, holding handrails, handling change, one thing your mother said always pops into your head “You don’t know who touched that last!” Which is perhaps the reason that this past summer I used hand sanitizer more than I looked at my iPhone. And that is saying something.
Despite common perceptions, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are well adapted to the skin. The use of alcohol-based hand gels dries skin less, leaving more moisture in the epidermis, than hand washing with antiseptic/antimicrobial soap and water.

The Rumor: Hand Sanitizer is not only ineffective, it’s toxic.
The Verdict: While washing your hands with soap and water is superior to both alcoholic and non-alcoholic hand sanitizers, using a non-alcoholic hand sanitizer is about as effective at getting rid of bacteria as rinsing your hands in cold water. They are missing the main ingredient alcohol and replaced by Triclosan, which doesn’t protect against viruses or fungi. Alcohol based sanitizers are fairly effective and safe. Any hand-sanitizers with over 60% alcohol are good at killing bacteria.

Knowing this, I think it is safe to say that I will continue to use hand sanitizers at the overzealous level that I do. Don’t listen to those people that abide by the rumors, as they are simply that. Rumors.

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Grace Cooney