Along with your trusty mask, hand sanitiser is the accessory of the moment, but how effective is it really? We take a closer look at claims that sanitizer can kill nearly all known germs.
Alcohol is a very effective way of killing germs of all different kinds. Whether it’s attacking bacteria or viruses, alcohol can neutralise nearly all bugs you wouldn’t want around on your hands or on your table. Not all - there are a few viruses and bacteria, notably C.Difficile (the clue’s in the name!) and Noro virus which even alcohol can’t touch, hence the widespread claim that alcohol-based sanitiser is only 99.9% effective, rather than 100% - but generally alcohol does the job pretty efficiently. In other words, alcohol could, in theory, neutralise the vast majority of harmful microorganisms (aka germs) you might encounter.
How does it work?
Well, the alcohol disrupts the membranes of (most) viruses and bacteria, almost as if it were melting their bones. It happens incredibly quickly too, so swooshing hands or surfaces with alcohol can be a quick and easy way of neutralising anything in the vicinity. A virus cannot hold itself together, much less multiply and infect you, if its bonds are dissolved.
Problems with sanitiser
The main problem with hand sanitiser that people fail to take into consideration when they trust its claim to kill 99.9% of germs, is that they’re not using it under laboratory conditions! Various factors reduce alcohol’s ability to dismantle viral or bacterial bonds, and these include using it on hands that aren’t clean… which can be a bit of a problem if people are using sanitiser precisely because they don’t have clean hands! But the unfortunate fact remains that if skin is covered in fine layers of oil, grease, grime or other dirt, or if hands are wet or sweaty, the efficiency of the sanitiser is significantly reduced.
The other issue with sanitisers is that they’re usually already diluted, to greater or lesser extent. Hand sanitisers tend to mix alcohol with other ingredients to make a gel, so that it’s easier to rub onto hands, and include dyes, perfumes or other carrier ingredients to make it more pleasant to use. Every one of those other ingredients will dilute the alcohol and end up making the end product less efficient; in fact it’s recommended that if you’re using a sanitiser to neutralise viruses like Covid-19, you should make sure it’s made with at least 70% alcohol.
Soap & water
Other methods of cleaning hands and surfaces work as well - if not even better - to protect people from germs. The most useful and universal method is using soap and warm water, which might sound like it’s too obvious and low-tech to be as effective as alcohol, but really does work! That’s because it hits bacteria and viruses with a double whammy: first, ordinary high-alkaline bar soap works in pretty much the same way as alcohol to dismantle and dissolve the microrganism’s bonds, but second, and even more usefully, the soap and water bind with the grease and grime on the surface of the skin as well, prising them from the skin and allowing them to be washed away down the plughole along with the water! This second step is key: it avoids the problem with oily hands, and washes away the viral particles whether they’d been neutralised or now.
In fact, good old soap and water is the recommended method of keeping hands and surfaces clean, above even high alcohol-content sanitisers.
Other methods of avoiding germs
There are, of course, other ways of lessening the risk of a viral or bacterial infection: wearing a mask, keeping your distance, avoiding unventilated places, staying outdoors if not in your own home, washing down surfaces, not touching your eyes or nose etc.
When should you use sanitiser?
So if even 70% sanitiser is not as effective as warm water and soap, when can it be used?
The answer is if you're on the go and don’t have access to running water. Maybe you’re outside in the country, or at the shops, or at work, and you can’t instantly access soap and water. Maybe you need to clean your hands after you’ve touched a surface, a doorknob or have sneezed or coughed: in those circumstances having some high alcohol content sanitiser to hand is pretty useful!
For more information about how to use sanitiser when you’ve got sore or sensitive hands, see our blog Is Hand Sanitiser Safe For Eczema?
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If you require medical advice we recommend you always contact your healthcare professional.
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