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3 hand sanitizer myths (and 3 tips)

Some hand sanitizers are only 40% effective, and last for as little as 2 minutes.

By Stacy Johnson Nov 16, 2010 10:46AM

This post comes from Michael Koretzky at partner site Money Talks News.


You can't fight an idea with logic. That's my conclusion after watching my 70-year-old mother obsess about hand sanitizer.

My mom taught me how to save money by clipping coupons and checking my pockets for loose change. But she has no problem spending $3 for a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer that she carries everywhere in her purse. And no amount of research on this topic will change her mind or her spending habits.


"Mom, you know that stuff doesn't work as well as you think it does, right?" I asked her once while we were sitting in a restaurant where I was buying her Mother's Day dinner.


"Well, it's better than nothing," she replied, squirting some on her hands from her tiny bottle.


"Not as good as washing our hands, which we can do by going over there," I said, pointing to the restrooms.


"Dear, if this didn't work, then why would they be selling so much of it?" she asked, holding out the tiny bottle so she could squirt some in my hands.


In the interest of family peace, I rubbed some of the stuff on my hands. Then I excused myself and went to wash my hands in the men's room.

My mom is right about one thing: Americans do buy a lot of hand sanitizer -- $117 million worth every year -- even though there's scant evidence they work the way we think they do.


Myths vs. facts

WE THINK hand sanitizer kills "99.9% of germs" when we use it.


WE KNOW that's only under laboratory conditions. "If you take the real world example where people are not washing their hands continually and all the dirt and grime is not taken off their hands prior to using a hand sanitizer, the actual efficacy of the sanitizer is going to decrease," Indiana University microbiologist Jason Tetro reported on his school's podcast. "It's anywhere between 40 and 60% effective."


WE THINK all hand sanitizers are the same.


WE KNOW that hand sanitizers with less than 60% ethyl or isopropyl alcohol aren't nearly as good at killing germs -- even though some brands on the market contain only 40%. "In fact, using an alcohol sanitizer with only 40% alcohol might not reduce bacteria on your hands at all," Dr. Jeffrey Benabio writes on his dermatology blog.


WE THINK hand sanitizer keeps our hands clean for hours.


WE KNOW they last minutes. "The leading products on the market today eliminate germs on contact but work for as little as two minutes," said a press release about a new survey that asked Americans how long they think their hand sanitizer lasts. The results? "Fifty-eight percent of the 1,007 men and women polled said they believe their hand sanitizer keeps germs at bay for an hour or more," the press release said. 


Most telling was this result: "Of those Americans who use hand sanitizers, 71% said they use them for peace of mind." Describes my mother perfectly.


Why all these misconceptions? Because advertising works better than research. If you go to the Purell website, you'll see a cute little boy blowing his nose. If you look up rigorous academic research about the effectiveness of hand sanitizer, you get a web page with no pictures and a title like, "A Randomized, Controlled Trial of a Multifaceted Intervention Including Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer and Hand-Hygiene Education to Reduce Illness Transmission in the Home."


Flying off the shelves

By the way, those studies do reveal one crucial fact: While washing your hands is best, hand sanitizer does work if you keep its effectiveness in perspective. With that in mind, here are three tips for buying and using the stuff:

  • Read the label. "Check the bottle for active ingredients," Columbia professor Elaine Larson told The New York Times. "It might say ethyl alcohol, ethanol, isopropanol or some other variation, and those are all fine. But make sure that whichever of those alcohols is listed, its concentration is between 60 and 95%. Less than that isn't enough."
  • Use a lot. You already bought the stuff, so don't skimp on using it now. "How much gel should you use? Enough to keep rubbing for 20 seconds without drying completely," recommends Dr. Benabio. "If the alcohol evaporates in less than 15 seconds, then you're not using enough."
  • Buy in bulk and online. At least my mother usually buys huge bottles of hand sanitizer to refill her little bottles. Alas, she doesn't shop online, where prices are even lower. Another reason to stock up: Prices go up when demand does. Last year during flu season, hand sanitizer flew off the shelves, up 70% during October 2009 from the same period the year before. So like anything else, stock up when demand is down.

More from Money Talks News and MSN Money:

Nov 16, 2010 11:57AM
I never thought for a second that hand sanitizer keeps on working for hours.  I use it to kill the germs on my hands now.  I use it mostly after shopping and touching the carts, etc. after I'm in my car.  Sometimes, I'll use it after I wash my hands in the bathroom at work and see that someone didn't wash their hands and opened the bathroom door with their germy hands.
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