Practicing good hand hygiene—which includes handwashing and using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available—is one of the most important and effective preventive measures we can all take to reduce the spread of germs. In fact, most illnesses can be transmitted by the hands, further emphasizing the importance of good hand hygiene practices. Bottom line: Practicing good hand hygiene is an essential habit that can help to keep building occupants and custodial staff healthy.
And yet, even though leading health organizations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization, recommend using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, there are many misconceptions out there about alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Some of the most frequently heard myths about hand sanitizers are those surrounding germs. First and foremost, ethyl alcohol, the active ingredient in most alcohol-based hand sanitizers, is the safest and most effective ingredient to kill the germs on your hands that can cause many illnesses. In fact, for well more than a century, countless lab and published clinical studies have supported the safety and effectiveness of ethyl alcohol.
So, let’s set the record straight. The following takes a closer look at—and debunks—some of the most common myths associated with using alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
True or False: All Hand Sanitizers Are the Same
This is false. Formulation matters. The active ingredient is important, but the total formulation affects the antimicrobial efficacy of the hand sanitizer. The product also has to deliver good skin care performance—or at least not damage the skin. It should also provide a good sensory experience and be pleasant to use.
When selecting an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, be sure to select one that contains at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol and is a product that you and your employees will want to use repeatedly.
True or False: All Germs Are Not the Same
This is true. Different types of germs can be classified into two groups: transient organisms andresident organisms. Resident organisms—the ones some people refer to as the good germs—live on all layers of the skin. Transient organisms are acquired as you touch a surface, such as a hand rail, door knob, or another person, and can also enter your body when you put your hands to your mouth.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers reduce the transient organisms, or the illness-causing germs, on your hands with the purpose of getting them below the infectious dose (at a level your immune system can handle). They also reduce the resident organisms, but those good germs quickly grow back and remain as our normal microbiota.
True or False: Alcohol-based Hand Sanitizers Cause Supergerms
This is false. One myth about alcohol-based hand sanitizers is they can create “supergerms,” or germs that are resistant to antibiotics.
The truth: Ethyl alcohol rapidly destroys the cell membranes and denatures the proteins in germs. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill germs in a different way than antibiotics, and the sanitizer is not left behind to let the germs become resistant to it or become what some people call “supergerms.” In fact, according to the CDC, there is no chance for the germs to adapt or develop resistance to an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, even with frequent use.
True or False: Alcohol-based Hand Sanitizers Do Not Contain Triclosan
This is true. Triclosan, which is an ingredient found in products such as toothpaste, antibacterial soaps, and other products, continues to receive attention from both researchers and the media. However, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration does not permit the use of triclosan as an active ingredient in products that are left on the skin.
The Whole Truth
At the end of the day, good hand hygiene is a strong preventive measure you should encourage among your staff and building occupants to reduce the spread of germs that can cause illness.