A hands-on guide to sanitizers and soap

The Baltimore Sun

During my toddler's terrible, terrible 2s, I sidestepped the daily hand-washing battle by letting him use waterless hand sanitizer.

My husband objected because he didn't think the alcohol-based products were as effective as good old soap and water. I argued that the quick-drying gels, now found in schools, hospitals, day care centers and health clubs, were better than nothing.

We were both right.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be a great substitute for hand washing if soap and water aren't available, as long as they contain more than 60 percent ethyl alcohol or isopropanol or a combination of the two.

And though they can kill bacteria, they differ from products labeled "antibacterial," which require water.

Here's a closer look at hand hygiene, a surprisingly befuddling topic.

Hand sanitizers

Available in a squeeze bottle or pump, sanitizer gel is alcohol-based and doesn't need to be rinsed off. Just a dime-sized dollop on dry hands kills micro-organisms by stripping away the outer layer of the oil on the skin.

After you've used it, the bacteria don't regrow as fast, which keeps "residual micro-flora that reside in deeper layers of skin from coming to the surface," according to the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.

But hand sanitizers still don't remove dirt; you need soap, water and friction for that. The setting and what's already on your hands also is important, because soil, food and other substances make the gels less effective.

Like any product not meant to be ingested, eating the stuff can be dangerous.

Antibacterial soap

Antibacterial soap, which contains the chemicals triclosan or triclocarban, must be used with water and is marketed as having the ability to kill bacteria. But it's no more effective than non-antibacterial soap and doesn't prevent colds or flu, which are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Unless you're in a hospital environment, using products with triclosan, a biocide that can destroy biological structures at random, is overkill, like using a jackhammer to kill an ant.

Moreover, triclosan, which mimics the thyroid hormone and is bioaccumulating in the environment, is present in 60 percent of U.S. waterways investigated.

Soap and water

Soap and water is the gold standard, especially if your hands are visibly soiled or you've just changed a diaper and have fecal matter on them.

A common mistake is applying the soap to dry hands. Instead, first wet your hands. Then use the soap, scrubbing the fronts and backs of the hands and between the fingers for about 10 to 15 seconds. (Hand sanitizers are just the opposite; make sure your hands are dry.)

Julie Deardorff writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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