Hand Sanitizers Won’t Save You

Good in a pinch, they don’t beat soap and water and likely may not live up to marketing claims

Robert Roy Britt
Elemental
Published in
7 min readFeb 18, 2020

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A photo of a person squirting hand sanitizer out of a bottle onto their hands.
Photo: Jananya Sriphairot/EyeEm/Getty Images

JJohn Newsam rarely uses hand sanitizers. “Perhaps once every month or two,” he says. “And pretty much only when using a portaloo, when soap and water are not available.” Newsam is CEO of Tioga Research, which studies new formulas for everything from skin care products to topical drugs. With a PhD in chemistry from Oxford University, he knows that a good scrubbing with soap and water is the preferred method for ridding his hands of a wide range of infectious germs.

In a pinch, hand sanitizers are deemed useful by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but the common marketing claims of “99.99% effectiveness” are based on laboratory tests involving certain germs, not entirely real-world efforts by sometimes imperfect and rushed humans slathering on some goop in a haphazard battle against the gamut of potentially debilitating and even deadly microbes out there.

“If soap and water are not available, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others,” according to the CDC. This can be useful in subways or other public places where regular hand-washing isn’t possible. The agency says hand sanitizers “work well” in hospitals, where health care workers’ hands are generally free of grease and dirt. But when hands are dirty or greasy, “such as after people handle food, play sports, work in the garden, or go camping or fishing,” the agency says, “hand sanitizers may not work well.”

Newsam thinks hand sanitizers might in fact offer a false sense of security.

“If the sanitizer is not applied properly, there may well be areas of skin surface from which the microbes are not removed,” he says. And as with regular hand-washing, it’s important to remember that any benefits do not linger. “As soon as the alcohol has evaporated and the hand comes in contact with another surface populated by microbes, there is the risk of immediate recolonization.”

The CDC says soap and water should always be the go-to solution before eating or preparing food, after using a bathroom or visiting someone who is sick, after coughing, sneezing, or…

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Robert Roy Britt
Elemental

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB