Waterless wonders

Ryan Haidet

Hand sanitizers are the on-the-go alternative to soap


Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Sniffle. Cough. Sneeze. Germs are everywhere now with the cold and flu season officially under way. With exposure to many germs, what is the best way to stay healthy?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend hand washing for people to avoid these viruses. When soap and water aren’t available, manufacturers created the hand sanitizers that can be seen virtually everywhere.

Experts in microbiology and health say these waterless wonders are actually quite effective in killing germs.

“Controlled microbiological studies have evaluated the effectiveness of many hand sanitizers and found them to be generally effective, unless resistance occurs,” said Christopher Woolverton, associate professor of biological science. “Resistance occurs if the microbe can somehow alter, eliminate or pump away the agents in the hand sanitizers.”

Woolverton said, resistance is bad because if the bacteria learn to be resistant, no matter how much sanitizer is used, bacteria will be able to continue to grow and cause disease.

Resistance also depends on the chemicals used in the sanitizer.

“To date, the sanitizers that use triclosan as the disinfecting agent have induced resistance,” Woolverton said. “The ones that use alcohol as the disinfecting agent have not.”

The difference between using soap and water and a sanitizer is the process of “lathering up, rubbing the suds and rinsing them away, taking the microbes with them,” Woolverton said.

Although some studies have said sanitizers are ineffective, Barb James, a nurse at the DeWeese Health Center, said she has faith in hand sanitizers.

“Anyone can do a study and publish the results, and there have been studies published that ‘prove’ sanitizers don’t really work that well,” James said. “However, the CDC recommends their use, and I tend to put a lot more faith in their recommendations.

“In the past few years, hand sanitizers have been used more and more frequently in clinical settings,” James said.

James said many people in the medical profession are pleased with the creation of hand sanitizers.

She said although hand washing is important, there have been some problems in the past that she hopes the availability of waterless sanitizers will help change.

“One of the first things they teach you in any medical field is that hand washing is the single most important way to stop the spread of germs,” James said. “The problem in the past has been compliance – people just didn’t do it. If they did wash their hands, many times they didn’t do it the right way, didn’t lather for as long as they were supposed to or wash their hands as often as they should.

“These (hand sanitizer) dispensers are convenient – much cheaper to install than sinks and you don’t have to wait forever to get hot water. All of us have been in public restrooms where the hot water faucet has been shut off or the soap dispenser is broken. Hand sanitizers would definitely be an improvement over that situation,” she said.

Ray Leone, chief university physician at the DeWeese Health Center, said the only sanitizers that are approved for medical use (as the most effective) are alcohol-based sanitizers.

“They actually do a pretty good job against viruses, bacteria and fungi,” Leone said. “Most sources would suggest that it is a decent second choice to soap and water.”

The claim the manufacturers make of their product killing 99.9 percent of germs will likely never reach the 100 percent mark because of lab test results.

Although sanitizers may be beneficial, there are a few drawbacks to them.

“They are designed to kill common respiratory and fecal pathogens,” Woolverton said.

He said sanitizers haven’t been tested on every organism. “Some studies show that continued, frequent use of sanitizers leads to drying of the skin resulting in cracks for microbes to hide.”

James agrees with the problem with this dried-out drawback.

“The thing I have against them (sanitizers) is that if you have to wash your hands dozens of times and you use these sanitizers, your skin really gets dried out – even to the point of getting cracks and open areas, and that’s not good,” James said.

Although hand sanitizers have been proven to work, the consensus of many is that nothing can beat soap and water when it comes to washing up.

“Personally I use soap and water when I have access. If I have no access then I use the alcohol-based sanitizers,” Woolverton said. “There is no substitute for thorough hand washing, especially after contact with body fluids.”

Contact features correspondent Ryan Haidet at [email protected].