[Author’s note: I am not a medical expert – far from it – so this entry is a personal opinion piece.]
I have quite a few bottles of hand sanitisers sitting around the house. We used to dutifully carry a giant bottle around in the diaper bag when Elliott was younger because hand sanitisers equate to clean hands, right? I cannot remember where I read this (probably one of those articles shared by friends on Facebook) but did you know that unless hand sanitisers contain alcohol, they are largely ineffective against viruses that causes illness?
From the first article:
Is using a hand sanitizer a good substitute for soap and water?
It can be—depending on the particular product and situation. The best way to clean your hands is to wash them with plain soap and running water for at least 20 seconds, especially if they are visibly dirty. This creates mechanical friction to loosen and rinse away microbes. If you don’t have access to soap and water, the next best thing is an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains a minimum of 60 percent alcohol (typically listed as ethyl alcohol). These products kill most (but not all) bacteria and viruses on contact. They also work well against fungi but not against bacterial spores (such as those created by C. difficile bacteria).
What about alcohol-free sanitizers?
Instead of alcohol, some hand sanitizers contain quaternary ammonium compounds (notably benzalkonium chloride or benzethonium chloride) to reduce microbes. These agents are less effective than alcohol, plus they lack evidence of real-life benefits. Moreover, they may be contributing to bacterial resistance (see inset). Other alcohol-free hand sanitizers contain “natural” ingredients like tea tree oil and thyme, which may kill some germs but not enough for them to be good alternatives to an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The CDC recommends only alcohol-based products.
From the second article:
Frequent hand washing is the best way to keep yourself healthy and to prevent the spread of illness. The most effective way to wash your hands is with plain old soap and water.
Hands should be washed: Before, during and after preparing food; before eating or drinking; before and after caring for someone who is sick; before and after touching a cut or wound; after using the toilet; after changing diapers; after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; after touching an animal or animal waste; after touching garbage.
While antibacterial gels can quickly reduce the number of germs on your hands, they do not eliminate all types of germs. If soap and water is not available however, antimicrobial gels are the next best thing.
It was such a revelation to me (like, OMG I’VE BEEN DOING IT WRONG ALL THIS TIME?!?!) because there I was, insisting that Elliott use the hand sanitiser after each playground visit, or before partaking in a meal. I always thought that it would do the job of keeping his hands clean. I did wonder why he was still falling ill despite my religious use of the hand sanitisers (the ones we use are alcohol free, safe for children, etc etc).
As it turns out, the only way to keep those damn viruses away is to wash both hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. To be honest, trying to balance a heavy toddler against a wet sink while trying to wash his both hands with your one available arm (because the other arm is wrapped around him, holding him up) is really not the easiest. What usually happens is some random squirting of soap onto his palms, some quick rubs, then a rinse. I guess that is better than not getting the hands washed, yes?
Ever since I discovered this fact, I’ve made it a point to get Elliott to wash his hands with soap whenever we are out. I have also noticed that this frequent hand-washing does lessen the number of times he has fallen ill. I do not have clear evidence that washing his hands after any activity helps in keeping the viruses away but so far, so good. To me, the following (among others) are hotbeds for viruses to be passed on – indoor playgrounds, outdoor playgrounds and kiddy rides. We cannot walk past kiddy rides without him having a go at it so we always whisk him off to get his hands washed ASAP.
This article from Singapore General Hospital sums it up nicely. Have a read! Here are 2 important points, in summary, on what people should clean their hands with:
Liquid soap and water
Water alone will not remove dirt and bacteria. Soap allows these to be scrubbed off easily as they bind to them. Any regular soap will do. Antibacterial soap kills bacteria more effectively but has not been shown to be more effective than ordinary soap in reducing the rates of colds and infections in generally healthy people, said a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States this year. What matters more is good hand hygiene, independent of the soap you use.
Alcohol-based hand sanitiser (containing at least 70 per cent alcohol)
Hand sanitisers are a quick and effective way to disinfect your hands when soap and water are not available. Cleaning hands with alcohol-based hand sanitisers takes probably 20 seconds, while washing hands with soap and water needs about a minute including the time taken to lather, rinse and dry the hands. But alcohol-based hand sanitisers are not effective if the hands are visibly dirty. Dirt needs to be washed off with soap and water.
(I do wish more public toilets have child-friendly sinks like these. Maybe one day…)
So everybody, please remember to wash your hands (whenever you can), especially of our little people! They touch everything (and anything), and those same hands reach out and touch their face ALL THE TIME. Stay healthy!