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Nowadays, and especially with our worldwide concerns about coronaviruses, you see hand sanitizers everywhere; at supermarkets, shopping malls and doctors’ offices. No doubt you routinely give your hands a good squirt of sanitizer as you pass by, but are they really that effective?

You may be surprised to learn that relying on hand sanitizers for good hand hygiene might not be the best strategy for disease prevention.

Using Hand Sanitizer Daily Could Be Harmful

Lots of people use hand sanitizer at least once a day and sometimes multiple times every day, and these products contain chemicals. Recently, there have been worries that the companies making these products should provide proof that the chemicals in hand sanitizers are safe for everyday use and especially for pregnant women and children. Additionally, concerns were raised about using antibacterial hand sanitizers containing chemicals, such as triclosan could worsen the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In April 2019, the FDA ruled that dozens of active ingredients cannot be used in hand sanitizers (including triclosan), but research is still ongoing into three of the most commonly used active ingredients, and these include ethyl alcohol. Although there is clear evidence that ethyl alcohol is a carcinogen when ingested in beverages, so far, there is a lack of evidence linking topical use to a higher risk of skin cancer.

A study published in August 2019 found that ethanol-based hand sanitizer is less effective in preventing seasonal flu outbreaks. This is because the sanitizer cannot kill the virus causing colds and flu, while your fingers are still damp with mucus. Alcohol-based sanitizers are more effective. Coronaviruses are named after the spherical “corona” or outer shell that contains the virus. Alcohol is known to break down that shell. Unfortunately, alcohol also dries out your skin and excessive use on your hands is not good for your body. Since they are no better at disinfecting your hands than soap and water, you should only use them when that option doesn’t exist.

Why Soap and Water is Best

Thoroughly cleaning your hands will prevent the spread of disease, and good old soap and water are far better. Soap is better at overall cleansing, lifting bacteria, dirt and oil from your skin. Unlike hand sanitizer, soap is also more effective at eliminating chemical residues and pesticides that can remain on hands. Another reason for using soap and water is that it can preserve the good bacteria or flora on your hands more effectively than hand sanitizer. Removing these good bacteria can allow other more harmful bacteria to take their place, as they are there for a reason.

However, to be effective, you must use soap the right way, applying enough soap to work it to a nice lather, and taking the time to scrub all the surfaces including the backs and palms of your hands, your fingers, between your fingers and underneath your nails. It should take at least 20 seconds to clean your hands thoroughly.

It should take at least 20 seconds to clean your hands thoroughly.

Hand Sanitizer Can Be a Temporary Solution

If you cannot wash your hands properly, using hand sanitizer can be a temporary solution. It’s best to choose a sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol because a higher level of alcohol can kill viruses and bacteria more effectively. Using an alcohol-free sanitizer may not be very effective, and it can contain other chemicals that irritate skin. Read the label to see how much you should use and rub it thoroughly over both surfaces of your hands until they are dry.

The bottom line is that while hand sanitizers are useful for occasional use, there isn’t any evidence showing they are more effective at protecting you from harmful bacteria. It is best to avoid using hand sanitizers if your hands are visibly dirty or when you have touched chemicals that can only be removed with soap and water.

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