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Hand sanitizer vs. Hand Washing

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I recently heard on the radio that one-in-three kids has a little bottle of hand sanitizer in his/her backpack. This makes me wonder—is it possible for an idea to be both good and bad? If so, then this statistic would apply.

Schools are like germ factories. But, one of my pet peeves is walking into an elementary school classroom and seeing a big bottle of hand sanitizer on the teacher's desk and knowing that many teachers opt to use hand sanitizers instead of herding their class to the restrooms to wash hands. This is understandable given the unruly potential of a mob of elementary school children. And squirting a blob of hand sanitizer onto fidgety hands is much easier than trying to manage a group of fidgety bodies going to and from restrooms.

Understanding aside, hand sanitizers offer little defense to the disease-laden-microorganisms in that environment. Many of us are fooled by the label on the front of the bottle claiming that sanitizers kill 99.9% bacteria; that's a lot of dead microbes! But the trouble is, not all microorganisms are bacteria. Some microorganisms are viruses — like the flu virus. And the best way to effectively get the flu virus off your hands is to wash them with soap and water.
This pet peeve now applies to well-meaning parents who place hand sanitizer in their children's backpacks. It potentially sends the message that hand sanitizer is good enough. But it's not. Sure, it's better than nothing—but only when hand washing is not an option.

If you do not have access to clean running water and soap, then yes, hand sanitizers can be a good backup — if used correctly. The most effective sanitizers contain an alcohol concentration between 60 – 95%. Non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers, while gentler and less-drying to skin, do not kill as many microorganisms and could cause germs to develop a resistance to the sanitizer itself. Another thing to keep in mind when using sanitizers is that you need a fairly large amount for it to work successfully. Think puddle as opposed to drop when squirting it into your palm. Then, you'll want to incorporate it into your skin until you can't feel it anymore, which may take up to a minute. This is another reason why school kids and sanitizer don't mix well; many kids will rub the sanitizer in for a few seconds and then wipe the excess off, which not only gets rid of the cleaning agent but also re-contaminates their hands.

The best way to use sanitizers is after you clean the dirt off your hands with soap and water. Sanitizers are just that — sanitizers. They are not clean-itizers. Studies show that sanitizers are no match compared to the melting properties of warm water and abrasive qualities of soap at removing dirt, oils and germs from the hands. This is why washing is the preferred method by experts for maintaining not only healthy hands but a healthy community. Washing cleans AND sanitizes hands. Commercial hand sanitizers just kick it up a notch.

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Crystal Futrell
Family and Consumer Sciences Agent
crystal.futrell@jocogov.org