Not so Handy after All?
As a student, I take public transit a lot. Any time I take the bus during rush hour, I usually have to squeeze onto the bus and stand uncomfortably close to the people around me. During these times, I clutch the nearest pole to keep from creating a domino effect if the bus driver happens to step on the brakes. As we sit at a red light, the person beside me coughs into their pole-holding hand and then grabs the pole again as the bus starts moving.
While all of this is happening, I hope that my trusty hand sanitizer is in my bag and plan on applying a dollop once I get off the bus. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because during the H1N1 pandemic last year, many of us stocked up on hand sanitizers from retail stores or received them for free from concerned organizations. During the pandemic and the months following, I had at least five travel-sized bottles of hand sanitizer at my disposal. Even if I forgot to place one in my bag, I could find a hand sanitizer station or bottle at the nearest grocery store, skytrain station, shopping mall or work.
As I look back on my unending use of hand sanitizer, did it really do the job? Did I stay influenza and cold-free because of my healthy eating habits, daily dose of vitamins, frequent hand washing and strange tasting Echinacea supplements, or was it frequent hand sanitizing?
As it turns out, an article in the Vancouver Sun stated that the “regular use of alcohol-based disinfecting hand gels authorities recommended during the H1N1 flu pandemic has little effect on the disease’s infection rate.” With a little investigation, I found the original study that the article was quoting. The study found that hand sanitizers containing 2% citric acid and 2% malic acid in 70% ethanol were effective in in-activating rhinovirus and influenza in the experimental setting, however, when used outside of the controlled setting, hand sanitizer had “no significant effect” in reducing the incidence of influenza infection when used every three hours. The study did find that hand sanitizer reduced the incidence of the common cold illness by one-third when compared to those who did not apply hand sanitizer.
In another study, volunteers had their hands contaminated with a rhinovirus and were instructed to remove it by either not doing anything, rinsing with water alone, washing with soap and water, applying 1.5ml of 64% ethanol, applying 3 ml of 65% ethanol or applying 1.5 mL 83% ethanol. The study found that 11 out of 16 participants who washed their hands with soap and water had remnants of rhinovirus on their hands. Two out of 15 people who applied 1.5ml of 65% ethanol had traces of rhinovirus on their hands. However, this study took place in a controlled and experimental setting while studies such as the one mentioned earlier demonstrated that hand sanitizer in the natural setting has little effect on rhinovirus removal. [*]
What does this mean for those who have become avid hand sanitizers? Hand sanitizer may be an effective method of decreasing your risk of the common cold, but the more serious and destabilizing influenza virus proves more difficult to get rid of. The best methods of preventing the flu are the ones you’ve been told your whole life. Wash your hands frequently with plain ol’ soap and water (especially before eating, using the bathroom, after coughing and sneezing and after touching contaminated surfaces like that bus pole), sneezing and coughing into your sleeve or tissue, and regularly cleaning of commonly used surfaces (door knobs, telephones, keyboards, etc).
Currently, I refrain from using hand sanitizer as much as I used to. Not only does it dry out my hands, but it’s not really that effective against influenza in the natural setting that I live in. Besides, who actually applies 1.5mL of hand sanitizer when the average travel sized bottle is only 15 mL? I probably apply half of that amount and when I do use hand sanitizer -especially when that person on the bus coughs onto their pole-holding hand- it’s more of a safety blanket if anything. However, after buying a nice smelling soap, I enjoy washing my hands for 20 seconds and don’t think of it as chore anymore. What is a chore, however, is removing ink stains from clothing and hard surfaces. Try rubbing some hand sanitizer on it, and unlike that influenza on your hands, it will magically disappear.
[*] Turner, Ronald, Janice Fuls, and Nancy Rodgers. “Effectiveness of Hand Sanitizers with and without Organic Acids for Removal of Rhinovirus from Hands.” Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 54.3 (2010): 1363-1364. Print.