By Shannon R., SELF magazine
While this winter has been pretty mild and there is a spring-like feeling in the air, we are still in the midst of cold and flu season, so keeping your hands clean is as important as ever. Hand sanitizers are a hugely popular way to keep the germs away-- let's take a closer work at how they work.
How do hand sanitizers work?
Hand sanitizers are very basic formulas with few ingredients. Most hand sanitizers are simply alcohol thickened to a gel with color and fragrance added to make them more appealing. This isn't the kind of alcohol you'd find in your local tavern however, it is ethanol or isopropanol. Some formulas contain moisturizing ingredients, which can help to slightly offset the drying effects of the alcohol. The rest of the ingredients, like vitamins and extracts, are used at very small amounts and don't do much of anything. The way that these products work is simple: you put them on your hands and most living bacteria are instantly killed. The alcohol breaks their cell walls and all their critical organelles leak out. We say that most are killed because there are some crafty buggers who can form spores that are immune to alcohol. That's why companies can only claim to kill 99.9% of germs.
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After a few moments, the alcohol evaporates and your hands are briefly sanitized. Of course, that's when the bacteria population starts to build up again. Think of it like a car windshield when it's raining: your hands are the windshield, the rain is bacteria and the sanitizer is the wipers. Sure, the wipers remove the rain on one pass, but the rain (or bacteria) just keep coming back.
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Are hand sanitizers effective?
Yes, these products work like they say they will, although their claims are supported by measuring microbe populations in a lab, not on human skin. There may be a difference. Washing your hands with soap and water is a better option because it will actually remove all the microbes. It also has the added benefit of removing non-microbial chemicals that can also make you sick. Additionally, overuse of hand sanitizer can dry out skin and irritate scratches or cuts that you may have on your hands.
Hand sanitizers are a good option in a pinch (or when that yucky public restroom is inevitably out of soap!). However, you can't beat good old-fashioned soap and water in the battle to fight disease-causing germs.