12 Surprising Germs Hand Sanitizer Won’t Kill
Your freshly sanitized hands aren't as clean as you think.
Hand sanitizer is a daily staple for parents on diaper duty, commuters who hold those rarely-cleaned handle bars on buses and subways, and many other people in between. In fact, according to global information company NPD Group, hand sanitizer sales in the United States shot up 37 percent from 2017 to 2018 alone. And while it’s perfectly fine to turn to this bottled product as a last resort, you shouldn’t opt for hand sanitizer over washing your hands in the sink if there’s clean water and soap available to you.
As it turns out, there’s a reason why most hand sanitizer companies don’t claim to kill 100 percent of germs and bacteria: Because they don’t. Keep reading to discover some of the viruses and germs you’re leaving on your hands every time you opt for hand sanitizer instead of soap and water.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus is a “very contagious virus” that can be spread via direct contact, contaminated food or drinks, and contaminated surfaces. And while thoroughly washing your hands (and your produce) is a good way to ensure your safety, using alcohol-based hand sanitizer isn’t quite as effective.
In one 2011 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control, researchers analyzed data from health departments in three states and found that the facilities that relied on hand sanitizer were more likely to experience a norovirus outbreak than those that favored hand-washing.
While HPV is primarily considered a sexually transmitted infection, individuals can still contract the disease non-sexually, including through childbirth, kissing, diaper changes, and other forms of close contact, according to a 2017 study published in The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research. And unfortunately, this is one virus hand sanitizer simply can’t touch.
In fact, according to one 2014 study published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, the disinfectants used in hand sanitizer “do nothing for preventing the spread of human papillomavirus,” as study author Craig Meyers noted in a press release.
Giardia is a microscopic parasite that causes a nasty diarrheal illness known as giardiasis. Though people most commonly get giardiasis from a contaminated water supply or food source, it is just as possible to contract the illness from person-to-person contact should someone have microscopic amounts of fecal matter on their hands. And don’t think that using hand sanitizer will clear your hands of this parasite; according to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol-based sanitizers are an ineffective preventative measure against the cysts responsible for giardia’s transmission.
If you want to avoid dealing with the painful symptoms and illnesses associated with Clostridium difficile (C. difficile)—a type of bacterium that can cause everything from diarrhea to colitis—then you’ll want to wash your hands rather than relying on sanitizer. One 2009 study published in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology tested the efficacy of several different hand-washing methods to eliminate C. difficile particles. The researchers found that using an alcohol-based hand rub was as ineffective as doing nothing at all. Conversely, warm water with plain soap proved to be the most effective method for removing the bacteria.
Ara h1 is one of the most common allergens found in peanuts, meaning people with a peanut allergy need to avoid it at all costs. Unfortunately, when people use hand sanitizer instead of soap to wash up after touching peanut products, Ara h1 frequently stays on their skin. That’s according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, which found that approximately 50 percent of subjects who used hand sanitizer after touching peanut butter still had traces of Ara h1 on their palms.
As study author Robert A. Wood, M.D., explained in a press release, these sanitizers don’t eliminate the allergen, but “spread it around” instead.
Cryptosporidium parvum (C. parvum) is a type of parasite that causes cryptosporidiosis, a diarrhea-inducing disease, in the intestinal tract. And using hand sanitizer won’t rid your dirty palms of this infectious agent, either.
In a landmark 1999 study published in the journal Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, only two of the more than nine disinfectants tested were able to inactivate the parasite. “Most high-level disinfectants… have limited efficacy against C. parvum,” the study authors concluded.
Even if your doctor uses all the hand sanitizer in the world, they might still be carrying around bacteria like Enterococcus faecium (E. faecium), which can affect the health of everything from your bladder to your heart. Though alcohol-based hand sanitizers were previously believed to safeguard against many germs, it turns out, they’re no match for Enterococcus faecium.
One 2018 study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine tested the tolerance of several E. faecium strains against sanitizer and found that samples collected between 2010 and 2015 were 10 times more resistant to the product’s supposedly-sanitizing effects than those collected between 1997 and 2010.
As recently as the early 1950s, prior to the widespread availability of the vaccine, poliovirus was responsible for the paralyzation of more than 15,000 people each year in the United States, according to the CDC. And with polio returning to countries where it had previously been eradicated (including a World Health Organization-reported outbreak in Papua New Guinea in 2018), people are desperate for ways to reduce the virus’ spread. Sadly, this is one illness that alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t protect against. Since poliovirus is a type of non-enveloped virus that can last longer in the environment, it’s therefore highly contagious.
So how do we know that typical hand sanitizers don’t work against poliovirus? Well, when researchers from The Dental College of Georgia compared the efficacy of their green tea hand sanitizer against that of alcohol-based hand sanitizers in 2016, they found that their green tea product was 100 times more effective in immobilizing poliovirus-1 than what is currently mandated. On top of that, two commonly-used hand sanitizers tested were less effective at reducing the virus’s potential to infect others.
MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a type of bacteria that can cause potentially fatal infections. And, as its name suggests, these infections do not respond to the antibiotic methicillin. However, that’s not the only reason you should fear MRSA. Though some hand sanitizers claim to protect against the bacterium, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned back in 2011 that “these statements are unproven.”
“Consumers are being misled if they think these products you can buy in a drug store or from other places will protect them from a potentially deadly infection,” noted Deborah Autor, compliance director at the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa (P. aeruginosa) is a rod-shaped bacterium that can cause everything from ear infections to pneumonia. Though some hand sanitizer brands have proven effective against it, others are considerably less potent. In one 2018 study published in the Journal of Clinical Case Reports, for instance, Dettol sanitizer—a hand sanitizer that claims to kill 99.9 percent of germs—was found to be an inadequate line of defense against P. aeruginosa. When it comes to this type of bacteria, hand sanitizer is a total toss-up, so it’s better just to wash your hands if and when you come in contact with it.
Don’t rely on hand sanitizer to protect you from Staphylococcus (S. epidermidis). In the same 2018 study from the Journal of Clinical Case Reports, researchers found that, out of the five alcohol-based sanitizers they tested, only three were able to inhibit the growth of S. epidermidis. In other words, if you were to go to the store right now and buy a random bottle of hand sanitizer without looking at the brand name, you’d have a 40 percent chance of buying one that doesn’t protect against this bacterium.
If you’re at all familiar with the bacterium E. coli, which the CDC linked to five deaths in the United States during a 2018 outbreak, then you already know that you want to avoid it at all costs. However, using hand sanitizer isn’t enough to rid your hands of this germ, especially if you work in an environment where you’re in regular contact with raw food.
Per one 2016 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Food Protection, the E. coli reduction achieved by hand sanitizer is “consistently lower than that obtained with water and soap.” What’s more, when researchers from Procter & Gamble tested plain soap, hand sanitizer, and a combination of the two on people who had just handled raw chicken and beef, they found that plain soap was most effective at eliminating the E. coli threat. And for more helpful health tips, check out Exactly How Far You Need to Stand from Someone Sick to Avoid Getting the Flu.
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