Should you use alcoholic hand sanitizers?

 It depends.

The hands are excellent extensions of the body, serving for many things; however, these can also put germs in contact with the eyes, nose, mouth, and many other body parts. This is why washing them with soap and water multiple times a day is recommended for disease control, considered to be the best way to clean them. Yet, a great alternative comes in the form of hand sanitizers.

Also known as hand antiseptic or hand rub, hand sanitizer is an agent that can be applied to the hands with the objective of removing common disease-causing microorganisms in a safe and effective way.

Typically coming in the form of gels, foams, or liquids, these are used in a wide range of situations and locations, being common elements in schools, health care centers, supermarkets, gyms, bathrooms, cruise ships, among others. These are especially recommended when the use of soap and water for hand-washing is not available or when the repeated hand washing process represents a harmful factor for the natural skin barrier.

Hand sanitizers provide a tremendous amount of benefits, the main one being their cleanliness capacities. In the end, this is the idea: that it sanitizes. According to experts on the matter, when used correctly, hand sanitizers are capable of eliminating 99.9% of the microorganisms found in the hands. This action decreases the risk of contracting a disease, especially during the flu or cold season.

Another great benefit is their portability, being capable of taking a hand sanitizer to most situations and locations without occupying that much space. As stated above, this is especially beneficial in those cases where soap and water are not available, such as sporting events, public transportation, grocery stores, etc.

Additionally, preferring hand sanitizers reduces the waste that comes with using paper towels to dry the hands after washing them with soap and water or to open doors when leaving bathrooms or kitchens.

But the most surprising benefit that comes with the use of hand sanitizers is that some of these can produce a softer feeling on the texture of the skin of the hands due to the inclusion of moisturizers or emollients, such as glycerin, vitamin E, aloe vera, or green tea extract in their mix, reducing skin dryness and irritation. This way, the hands not only remain clean of germs, but also smoother than before. Some also include fragrances, increasing their appeal.

Another important factor that needs to be discussed regards the types of hand sanitizers commonly found in the market. Depending on their active ingredients, these can be classified into alcohol-based or alcohol-free hand sanitizers, both coming with their pros and cons.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers usually contain between 60 and 95% alcohol in the form of ethanol, isopropanol, or n-propanol, being capable of neutralizing certain microorganisms through protein denaturation.

According to experts, these provide the most germ-killing capacities, preventing the spread of infections more accurately. However, although alcohol provides quick kill rates, it also evaporates quickly once on the skin, not producing residual protection. Besides, these can strip away the skin’s natural sebum and lipids, which are protective elements, leading to skin dryness, dermatitis, etc.

On the other hand, alcohol-free hand sanitizers contain disinfectants like benzalkonium chloride (BAC) or antimicrobial agents like triclosan, having an immediate and persistent activity against germs.

Although these also provide excellent microorganisms kill rates, these are less efficient than alcohol-based ones when preventing disease spread. However, the elements included in their mix can provide a residual antimicrobial activity that can last up to 4 hours after the application. Plus, this type of hand sanitizer is normally kinder to the skin due to the moisturizers or emollients contained, being ideal for those individuals that need to constantly sanitize their hands as is the case of medical personal.

Lastly, it is also important to know how to properly use a hand sanitizer to ensure it does the job it is meant to do. These next few tips will be useful to achieve this goal:

  • It should not be used if the hands are dirty with oil, dirt, blood, or soil because its sanitizing capacity will not be effective.
  • It should be applied in such a way and amount that it covers every part of the hands, including their back, fingers, and nail-beds.
  • It should be rubbed until the hands become dry, making sure it comes in contact with all surfaces.
  • It should be used as a complement of washing the hands with soap and water, but not as a replacement.
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