There is a claim, printed on all bottles of hand sanitizer’s on retail shelves around the world, that these products “kill 99.99% of germs.” Purell, Germ-X, CVS generic Walgreen’s generic, Nexcare, and many others all say the same thing: 99.99% A high number, to be sure, but is it enough?
These miraculous gels or foams contain the active ingredient ethyl alcohol at a 60-70% concentration. This element is responsible for the death of 99.99% of all bacteria that comes in contact with human skin. Ethyl alcohol, ethanol, kills many microbes; in doing so, though, ethyl alcohol can cause skin to dry out. This drying of the skin leads to cracks in the body’s first line of defense against illness. In an attempt to be sanitary, a person can over-use hand sanitizer’s and actually increase their susceptibility to contracting a disease. These sanitizer’s also come with warnings:
1.) For external use only
2.) Keep away from heat or flame
3.) Keep out of eyes
4.) Avoid contact with broken skin
5.) Do not inhale or ingest;
6.) Keep out of reach of children
7.) Stop usage and ask a doctor if skin irritation develops.
These warnings sound risky to me, yet hand sanitizer’s are immensely effective, as is stated on their labels. But are they effective enough?
The very nature of hand sanitizer’s is their convenience, but that is also their downfall. By having a self-drying product, they are removing one of the most vital aspects of hand cleansing: drying. Studies have found that, while washing hands alone does not prevent the transfer of bacteria, the drying of the hands significantly reduces the transfer. Hand sanitizer’s, though, don’t seem to think it very important. The directions on a hand sanitizer bottle, no matter who makes or packages it, instructs us to: cover our hands completely with the product; let the product dry on hands; do not wipe or rinse off; you can rub your hands briskly together and let them dry. Now you can eat your chicken wings with your clean hands, without worries? Would you use hand sanitizer then actually lick your fingers? Remember, there is still .01% of live bacteria on your hands, and the dead germs as well. While hand sanitizer’s make you feel clean, they don’t necessarily succeed.
Sadly, there is a social misconception that has taken root as truth: that hand sanitizer’s clean your hands. But the real truth is that using hand sanitizer’s cannot replace or be considered as safe and effective as actually washing and drying your hands. The action of washing with soap, lathering up, rinsing, and drying your hands with a clean paper towel provides more friction and actual drying of the hands, which studies have shown is just as, if not more, effective as the washing of the hands. Simply applying a gel and letting it dry is much less sanitary, especially when you remember that .01% of live bacteria remain on your hands.
While .01% may seem like a risk worth taking, most consumers don’t realize how high that number actually is. In fact, as stated by the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois, there is an average of 32 million bacteria on each square inch of the human body. The average human hand is 119 to 158 square inches in size, resulting in 3,808,000,000 to 5,056,000,000 bacteria on the hand alone. Even with the 99.99% effectiveness of hand sanitizer’s, there are still 380,800 to 505,600 bacteria left alive. This is an alarmingly high number of possible life threatening contagions that can exist unscathed.
Hopefully the usage of these sanitizer’s has not caused the user to develop dry cracked skin, making possible a direct passage of microbes into the body. Hopefully most of the germs that have survived the sanitizer are of the non-pathogenic variety.
Even though the number 99.99% seems as close to 100 as manufacturers can get, ask yourself: is it close enough to protect your family or yourself from harmful contagions? While hand sanitizer does have its uses, you should take the time to wash your hands thoroughly. If you’re in a pinch, hand sanitizer can help, but you should still wash your hands as soon as you can. Research shows that the sanitizer becomes ineffective if used in excess, so wash your hands if you use sanitizer more than twice in a row. Adapting yourself to the habit of washing your hands with soap and water, and drying them effectively, is a simply yet immensely beneficial way to keep yourself and those around you safe and healthy.