If you are long in the tooth enough to remember the incredibly popular 1970s sitcom Happy Days, you might remember the classic episode where the iconic character Fonzi, played by Henry Winkler, was water skiing and jumped a shark while wearing his trademark black leather bomber jacket. This jumping of the shark marked the beginning of the end for the incredibly popular sitcom. Jumping the shark has become synonymous with loss of momentum; the finality of life of the entity. In other words, “stick a fork in it, it’s done.” For hand sanitizer, this may be the case.
Hand sanitizer has led a dubious life since its inception. Hand sanitizer owes its incredible surge in popularity, sadly, due to human lethargy. It comes down to time – the average hand sanitizer application lasts less than five seconds, while proper hand washing lasts 60 seconds. The little bottle of sanitizer dangling from a woman’s purse says ‘Hey, I care about sanitation,’ similar to the caring demonstrated in the short-lived “Baby On Board” placards that were so popular in car windows.
Since its inception, the manufacturers of hand sanitizers have been scrambling to correct some nagging inherent weaknesses in the gooey disinfectant. One big problem has been the cost of the alcohol ingredient. Isopropyl is usually the main alcohol ingredient used, but there has always been a search for a cheaper yet still effective replacement. Hand sanitizer has other problems, too, such as ingestion abuse due to its high alcohol content; high frequency users seem to allow absorption through the skin which shows up in a positive blood alcohol test. Alcohol is also highly volatile, meaning it evaporates too quickly and is highly flammable, as well as causes skin irritation. The alcohol is great at killing most bacteria, but there are bugs it won’t kill; for example, the Norovirus, which has been a constant problem with sickness on cruise ships. So, to sum up again, the original sanitizer formulas are inherently too expensive, evaporate, can be a source of consumption abuse, don’t kill all the bugs on your hands, and repeated use seems to decrease its effectiveness and cause skin problems, such as drying and eczema.
Manufacturers have been scrambling for a less controversial yet effective alternative for the hand sanitizer’s most important ingredient, isopropyl alcohol. That brings us to Benzalkonium Chloride based hand sanitizers, which have now been touted as the perfect replacement for alcohol-based gels. Benzalkonium Chloride was touted as cheaper to manufacture, and claimed to be effective against the microbes that alcohol couldn’t kill. It also doesn’t have negative skins effects and doesn’t become less effective after repeated use, which was a huge negative for alcohol gel hand sanitizers. So it comes as no surprise that hand sanitizer companies have started using Benzalkonium Chloride in place of Isopropyl. For Kleenex-brand sanitizers, though, the switch came with some issues.
Recently, the large-bottle Kleenex-brand hand sanitizer has been recalled by the manufacturer in Canada after it was found to be contaminated with microbes, which leaves you scratching your head. How effective is Benzalkonium Chloride at killing microbes if the bugs can survive in the bottle of sanitizer? It makes you wonder if profits played a role in the non-alcohol version of sanitizer being used in place of the more expensive alcohol gel sanitizer. After all, manufacturers have been trying for years to lower the percent of alcohol in sanitizers, at a cost, which has decreased efficiency. The take away here: It’s always about the Profits.