Is a Squirt of Hand Sanitizer as Good as Washing Your Hands?

by Alexandra Owens


CN Digital StudioCN Digital Studio Last week in gross-out news, a study from Michigan State University's School of Hospitality and Business found that only 5 percent of people wash their hands enough to kill germs after using the bathroom (and 10 percent skipped the hygienic step completely). I think Carl Borchgrevink, an associate professor behind the experiment, summed it up best: "Horrifying." But one detail of the report had me feeling a little sheepish: 33 percent of hand washers didn't use soap. Before my editor banishes me to an annex somewhere, let me clarify that I don't use plain water, either--I prefer hand sanitizer. It just smells so reassuringly antibacterial. So I asked Fran Wallach, an associate professor of medicine and infectious disease at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, if I was doing my civic duty.

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Turns out I needed the hygiene lesson after all. "It's best to manually wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom," says Wallach. "Alcohol kills most viruses, but some, like the kind of vomiting virus that goes around in winter, are a little heartier and harder to kill. You also need the mechanical action of the soap and water. The friction gets rid of material from blood and body fluids that can build up on your hands. I use the analogy of a lasagna pan. If you put it through the dish washer without manually cleaning it first, it doesn't really get clean."

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The good news for Purell addicts like me is that, "for most other things, hand sanitizers are fine, especially if there's no water available--like on the subway. Just use enough to cover your palm and get in between your fingers, and let it air-dry for about 15 seconds."

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