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Are Hand Sanitizers Effective Against Germs?
on April 29, 2020
Since COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., hand sanitizers have been sold out all over the country. But how effective are they, actually? Data shows us that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective and can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations, but they do not eliminate all types of germs. For example, at a minimum 60% solution they’re not effective against Norovirus, the virus that causes the seasonal stomach flu or gastroenteritis. But they are said to be effective against COVID-19.
How do hand sanitizers work?
We all know that hand sanitizers provide a convenient way to “clean” your hands if soap and water aren’t available but how does the “cleaning” actually work? Generally speaking, alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill germs by disrupting the membranes of various microorganisms, including many viruses, according to James Scott, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto who specializes in biological hazards in the workplace (Rolling Stone). The virus causing COVID-19 has a membrane, which is why alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective against it as the alcohol breaks down the membrane. Although popular hand sanitizer brands tout their effectiveness at killing 99.9% of germs, up until fairly recently there’s been a vibrant debate in the public-health realm about whether hand sanitizer was even effective at fighting disease-causing microorganisms to begin with. They’re relied upon in the hospital setting, to help prevent the transfer of viruses and bacteria from one patient to another by hospital personnel. Beyond hospitals, it’s difficult to show that hand sanitizing products are useful. Outside of the hospital, most people catch viruses from direct contact with people who already have them, and hand sanitizers won’t do anything in those circumstances where the transmission didn’t involve hands. Plus, they haven’t been shown to have more disinfecting power than just washing your hands well with good old soap and water.
Is it true hand sanitizers are effective?
Your hands might feel more clean after using a hand sanitizer, but are the ingredients good for you, for your skin and your hands? For both safety and health, CDC recommends washing hands as your number one priority effective method against most microorganisms. If you don’t have access to water and soap and want to use a hand sanitizer instead, it should contain at least 60% alcohol to help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. And while the alcohol is effective against most microorganisms, it’s not only going to disrupt their membranes, it’s also going to remove the natural oils from your skin, which over time will cause your skin to lose emollient and become at risk for cracking. That’s why medical personnel are known to complain about dry skin on their hands.
What other ingredients do hand sanitizers contain that could help or harm you?
Did you know there’s a big difference between alcohol and non-alcohol based hand sanitizers? No matter which one you use, always make sure to look at the ingredients. You might be surprised by all the different chemicals and words that can’t be pronounced. Hand sanitizer’s most common active ingredient is typically ethyl alcohol which works as an antiseptic. Other ingredients could include water, fragrance, and glycerin plus a number of other possible active ingredients. Other non-alcohol based hand sanitizers previously have contained an antibiotic compound called triclosan or triclocarban. These two ingredients have very similar properties, although each performs better in different types of product. For example, triclosan was used more often in liquid soaps, while triclocarban was used mainly in soap bars. These products were often labeled antibacterial, antimicrobial, or antiseptic soaps. One of the problems with triclosan was that it contributed to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. This brings up the question of whether using hand sanitizers in general may actually lower your resistance to diseases by killing good bacteria, which helps protect against bad bacteria. The FDA reported research shows triclosan may lead to hormonal disruptions along with potentially leading to the creation of more antibiotic-resistant strains. Animal studies have shown that the compound could change the way hormones work in the body, raising concerns and warranting further investigation to better understand how they might affect humans. Fortunately for us humans, both antibacterial compounds were banned in the U.S. in 2017 from consumer soaps, and more recently also in antiseptic products used in hospitals and other health care settings, for their failure to be proven safe, or more effective than plain soap and water.
What about fragrances and sensitivities?
Another consideration is about fragrance. If your hand sanitizer is scented, it may be loaded with toxic chemicals. Companies aren’t required to disclose the ingredients that make up their secret scents, which generally are made from dozens of chemicals. Synthetic fragrances contain phthalates, which are endocrine disruptors that mimic hormones and could alter genital development. You should also look out for parabens, which are in many skincare products. They are used to preserve other ingredients and extend a product’s shelf life. For those who are particularly chemically sensitive, many or even most of these products wreak havoc with their systems. For the rest of us, they may pose risks that are yet not well known.
So, if this scares you, what substitute to hand sanitizers can you use? There are several natural alternatives out there.
A wide range of medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) have been explored for their essential oils in recent decades. Essential oils are complex volatile compounds, synthesized naturally in different plant parts during the process of secondary metabolism. Essential oils have great potential in the field of biomedicine as they effectively destroy several bacterial, fungal, and viral pathogens. The presence of different types of aldehydes, phenolics, terpenes, and other antimicrobial compounds means that the essential oils are effective against a diverse range of pathogens. The reactivity of essential oil depends upon the nature, composition, and orientation of its functional groups. That said, claims have circulated that eucalyptus oil can protect against getting respiratory-based illnesses such as covid-19. The Food and Drug Administration in the US has sent warning letters to companies selling essential oils that “are misleadingly presented as safe or effective for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19.” Although the claims have been removed from websites, information still circulates about the benefits of eucalyptus oil vapours offering protection against viral infection. There’s no scientific proof of this, but a proper controlled trial could be worth pursuing. Note that essential oils such as DoTerra’s On Guard formulation are effective against microorganisms because of their ethyl alcohol content.
Antimicrobial StayWell™ Copper
Last and of course not least, there’s antimicrobial copper. There are a number of studies showing pure copper’s antimicrobial properties. We at StayWell™ Copper consider our products as non-messy, non-chemical alternatives to bottled hand sanitizers. The details of the chemical reactions involved in copper’s natural antimicrobial properties vary by microorganism, but the science shows that there is an ionic exchange between the copper surface and the microorganism. Whether there’s a cell wall as with bacteria and fungi, or a membrane, as with many but not all viruses (COVID-19 has a membrane or envelope holding in the rest of the viral contents) the effect copper has on the microorganism is the same: it is disrupted.
Be careful, and be smart!
The question to be answered, no matter which option we’re talking about, is how much time these processes take. Since we’re talking about microorganisms way too small for us to see, it comes down to vigilance and good habits! We recommend vigilant care about where you go, who you’re around, and what you touch. Use effective hand washing as your first defense, and chemical hand sanitizers if you are not sensitive to them, and keep your StayWell™ Copper on hand for that extra level of protection from antimicrobial copper.