Does Hand Sanitizer Really Work? How to keep your hands clean—or not

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Hand-sanitizer dispensers have been appearing in restrooms in my area. Recently, my employer installed one in the men’s room near the sink. It’s unclear to me if it’s intended as a substitute for hand washing or a supplement. Would you please enlighten your readers concerning the proper use of this stuff? While you’re at it, does hand sanitizer really work, or is it just a fad? —Tom Meyer

You’ve got a point. Nobody really knows how to use hand sanitizer. Proper labeling should be mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the World Bank. Knowing how slowly bureaucracies work, however, I’ve drawn up the following emergency instructions. The hand sanitizer industry should feel free to post this above every dispenser, so that the public may be informed:

HAND SANITIZER—INSTRUCTIONS FOR USE

  1. To use: (a) Squirt product on hands. (b) Rub hands together till dry. (c) Stop.
  2. The idea is that the sanitizer will evaporate without rinsing or towels, making it possible to rid your hands of germs when there’s no bathroom in the vicinity. Studies say this stuff works as well as soap and water. However, we aren’t claiming it works better than soap and water (or anyway most of us aren’t; see below). In other words, if you’re a corporate-facilities manager putting hand sanitizer in the washrooms next to the sinks, you’re unclear on the concept, schmuck.
  3. Seriously, Lady Macbeth, quit rubbing. You’re making us nervous.
  4. Sanitizing your hands is different from cleaning them. If you’re covered with grime after changing the crankshaft on the Maserati, you’re going to want soap. As it happens, the maker of Purell, the leading hand sanitizer, also makes a grease-cutting semiliquid soap called Gojo that’s popular with mechanics. In short, our industry is there for you regardless of your hand-cleansing needs.
  5. Some may think hand sanitizer is solving a nonexistent problem. We beg to differ. Suppose you’re a politician. We saw a story in the New York Times about one enthusiastic public servant who shook 13,392 hands in eight hours. God knows how many of those hands were attached to people with colds, the flu, or amoebic dysentery. This individual has good reason to use hand sanitizer. Heck, we could make decent money supplying product just to him.
  6. If you have the feeling that bugs are crawling all over your body, hand sanitizer is not what you need. Nor, most likely, are tweezers and a little box.
  7. Another place where hand sanitizer has its uses is in hospitals. An all-too-common problem in hospitals is you go in with one ailment, catch a different one, and die. Studies have shown that a rigorous program of hygiene by hospital staff including use of hand sanitizer between patients significantly reduces so-called nosocomial infections.
  8. Isn’t that a great word, “nosocomial”? Doctors could just say “hospital-caused.” However, everybody would then know what they meant.
  9. Let’s suppose you’re not a politician, health-care worker, Porta Potti user, primary-school teacher, or other high-risk individual. Do you still need to use hand sanitizer? In our opinion, yes, because we’re turning a very nice profit here. The hand-sanitizer business has grown from next to nothing in the 1990s to a projected $400 million annually by 2015.
  10. Chances are this product contains alcohol. It’s not, however, the kind of alcohol you’re supposed to drink. If you do anyway, be aware that chugging a 450-milliliter bottle is a ticket to the ICU.
  11. If you want to get into dueling research papers, you can make the argument (as our colleagues at Purell do) that hand sanitizer kills germs soap and water don’t. It’s also true alcohol-based sanitizers are ineffectual against some bugs, such as the one that causes botulism. Therefore, logically you should use both sanitizer and soap, and this may in fact be worth doing if you’re about to perform open-heart surgery. However, let’s be blunt. The chief driver of hand-sanitizer popularity isn’t medical necessity but fear. Big spikes in sales typically stem from media-fueled paranoia about the epidemic du jour, such as the 2009 panic over H1N1 flu. Sales rose 70 percent, even though the average American’s chances of getting the disease were less than one in a million.
  12. Then again, if you feel the need to sanitize every time you touch a doorknob—and we’re looking at you, Mr. or Ms. Borderline Compulsive Who Wants Dispensers Installed in the Subway—don’t expect us to say you can’t. —Cecil Adams

Have something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at straightdope.com.

Our Readers Say

Dear Cecil,

Since your clearly the man to ask this, what really came first? The chicken or the egg?

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