Health Curiosities

Hand Sanitizers - Not Always the Best Choice

Anyone who has been in a child's play area has witnessed it. As the children come off of the play equipment, the mothers reach into their purse to grab their hand sanitizer. Each child gets a dab of sanitizer to rub into her hands in order to eliminate the germs that have been transferred to her skin. The hope is that this practice will keep the children, and therefore their families, healthier.

Hand sanitizers can now be found in the entrances to nursing homes and hospitals and in many public washrooms. We all know the importance of proper hand-washing in reducing harmful germ transmission. However, there are times when there is no access to soap and water or not enough time to wash thoroughly. Can a hand sanitizer serve as a suitable alternative to hand washing? Will using a hand sanitizer decrease your chance of getting sick?

How they work
Hand sanitizers were developed for use after washing hands or for those times when soap and water are not available. They are gels that contain alcohol in order to kill the germs present on the skin. The alcohol works immediately and effectively in order to kill bacteria and most viruses. Alcohol can be very drying to the skin, so most brands of sanitizers also contain a moisturizer to minimize skin dryness and irritation.

How much should you use?
To use hand sanitizers effectively, place a small amount, the size of your thumbnail, on the palm of your hand and rub it over your entire hand, including in your nailbeds. If the gel completely evaporates in less than 15 seconds, you have not used enough product.

Studies have begun to discover the benefits of hand sanitizers, as well as their limitations. Below is a summary of the latest research.


  • Hand sanitizers are convenient, portable, easy to use and not time consuming.

  • Several studies have concluded that the risk of spreading gastrointestinal (stomach) and respiratory infection is decreased among families who use hand sanitizers.

  • Commercially prepared hand sanitizers contain ingredients that help prevent skin dryness. Using these products can result in less skin dryness and irritation than hand-washing.

  • Studies show that adding hand sanitizers to classrooms can reduce student absenteeism due to illness by 20 per cent. What's more, many kids think instant hand sanitizers are fun to use.


  • Not all hand sanitizers are created equally. Check the bottle for active ingredients. The alcohol content may be in the form of ethyl alcohol, ethanol or isopropanol. All of those are acceptable forms of alcohol. Be certain that no matter which type of alcohol is listed, its concentration is between 60 and 95 per cent. Am alcohol content of less than 60 per cent isn't enough to be effective.

  • Alcohol does not cut through grime. All dirt, blood and soil must be wiped or washed away first if the alcohol in the sanitizer is to be effective. In such cases, hand-washing with soap and water is advised.

  • Hand sanitizers are not cleaning agents and are not meant as a replacement for soap and water, but as a complementary habit. Sanitizers are most effective when used in conjunction with diligent hand-washing.

The use of hand sanitizers is a habit that can help keep us all exposed to fewer germs, and therefore may decrease our chance of illness. Whether you are on the playground, using someone else's computer or visiting a friend in the hospital, take the time to rub some on your hands. It is an easy step toward a healthy winter season.

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