Should You Use Hand Sanitizer?

Woman using hand sanitizer
Should you really use hand sanitizer?. Tetra Images / Getty Images

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer has been around for years, but the research was never quite clear about whether it was as effective against germs as washing your hands. The verdict is in, and it looks like hand sanitizer is at least as effective in protecting against some germs.

According to research performed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand sanitizer is considered as effective at killing germs as washing your hands with soap and water, unless hands are visibly soiled.

However, hand sanitizers do not kill some common germs such as salmonella, e. Coli, MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) and norovirus.

Pay Attention to Alcohol Content

Also, the alcohol content of the hand sanitizer must be at least 60 percent to be effective. If you find a product that contains no alcohol or the alcohol content is less than 60 percent, it will probably not protect you.

What It Can't Do

The fact that hand sanitizer does not kill norovirus is particularly important to remember if you are going on a cruise, as this is a common illness that occurs on cruise ships and passes quickly among the passengers and staff. Although many cruise ships place hand sanitizing stations throughout the boat, the CDC recommends that passengers rely on soap and water to clean their hands and not hand sanitizer.

Norovirus is now the leading cause of "stomach flu" symptoms anywhere, so you are at risk of getting it even if you aren't on a cruise ship.

If you are around someone with vomiting and diarrhea, wash your hands with soap and water. Don't count on hand sanitizer to get rid of the germs that cause those symptoms. 

False Claims

If you see products that claim to kill germs such as salmonella, e. Coli or MRSA, do not believe them as these claims are unproven and illegal.

The FDA is cracking down on products that make false claims.

What You Can Do

To keep yourself and your family healthy, it's important to clean your hands, especially after you've used the restroom or prepared food. Vigorously washing your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds is still a tried and true method. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be a convenient alternative, however, as you can use them on-the-go--after you have been on public transportation, touched an animal or grocery cart, etc. The CDC states that both hand sanitizing wipes and alcohol-based gels are effective at killing germs.

To use hand sanitizer correctly:

  • Place the recommended amount in the palm of one hand.
  • Rub hands together.
  • Rub the sanitizer all over your hands and between your fingers until they are dry

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a great alternative to washing your hands if you have no access to soap and water, your hands are not visibly soiled and you understand that it does not kill germs such as MRSA, salmonella, e.

Coli, and norovirus.

You should also take care to keep any alcohol-based hand sanitizing gel out of the reach of young children as it can be very dangerous if swallowed. The high alcohol content can be fatal to a young child.

Sources:

Clean Hands Save Lives. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 22 Nov 2006. Department of Health and Human Services. 17 Apr 2007.

Hand Sanitizers Carry Unproven Claims to Prevent MRSA Infections Consumer Updates 3 Sep 13. US Food and Drug Administration. Department of Health and Human Services. 11 Sep 13.

Hand Sanitizer or Soap and Water? Tip of the Day May 13. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 11 Sep 13.

Keeping Your Hands Clean on a Cruise Vessel Sanitation Program 5 Aug 13. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 11 Sep 13.

Reynolds SA, Levy F, Walker ES. Hand sanitizer alert . Emerg Infect Dis. 2006 Mar. 17 Apr 2007.

Wash Your Hands CDC Features 25 Mar 13. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 11 Sep 13.

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