There are few things that are certain in life, as the saying goes. Yes, death and taxes. But another certainty in life is that alcohol-based hand sanitizers prevent or reduce the transmission of infections. Both bacterial and viral germs are killed by the drying effect of alcohol, and hospitals routinely use alcohol-based hand sanitizers to reduce patient-to-patient and staff-to-patient (and patient-to-staff) transmission of dangerous infections. Reduction and prevention of infections are time-tested, proven benefits of alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
What about those hand sanitizing products that don’t contain alcohol, yet boast “kills 99.9% of germs”? Well, that’s the difference between a test tube result and a real life result. In the test tube, lots of substances (including alcohol) kill 99.9% of bacterial germs – but for the most part these products have not been proven to reduce or prevent the actual infections that those bacteria cause. And killing 99.9% of bacterial germs does not help prevent viral infections. Remember, viruses cause the vast, vast majority of infections that keep your kids home from school and you home from work.
So, how should you choose the proper hand sanitizer for your family? First of all, recall from previous posts, and from Chapter 9 of Germ Proof Your Kids – The Complete Guide to Protecting (without Overprotecting) Your Family from Infections (ASM Press, 2008), that good handwashing with simple soap and water also has been proven to reduce and prevent real life infections caused by bacterial and viral germs. But when you can’t get to a sink, hand sanitizers are very…handy! The non-alcohol choices include those that contain antibiotics (triclosan), other chemical disinfectants (e.g. benzylkonium chloride), organic substances that kill bacteria (e.g. thymol or citric acid), or a variety of healthy-sounding, pleasant-smelling herbs that may or may not kill germs. None of these products have been proven to reduce or prevent actual infections, bacterial and viral, as effectively as alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
If you are very opposed to alcohol because you believe it to be “toxic” or “flammable”, I might be able to console you that prudent use is very safe. That includes letting the alcohol dry completely before touching your face or mouth, and rinsing off the alcohol when you get home to a sink. Yes, kids may get hold of an alcohol hand sanizter bottle and drink the stuff – there have been a couple well-publicized cases – but that can happen with the other, fruitier smelling non-alcohol hand sanitizers as well. And just because something is “organic” or “natural” doesn’t mean it’s non-toxic. Indeed, some of the “all natural” products can be quite bad for kids if swallowed.
I’m comfortable using alcohol hand sanitizers for kids under the supervision of an adult – an adult should supervise use of non-alcohol sanitizers as well, for the reasons noted above. If you feel strongly that you’d rather have your kids use a non-alcohol hand sanitizer, it is absolutely better to use those products than not to wash your kids hands at all when there is no sink nearby. So, if your kids have just high-fived the opposing soccer team and you don’t want them to use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, give them a squirt of the non-alcohol product and have them rub their hands well for 15 or 20 seconds. The liquid and rubbing action, in addition to whatever killing of germs the non-alcohol product does accomplish, has to be better than having your kids eat their post-soccer game, post-high fiving snack with no attempt at cleaning their hands at all.
For lots more on hand sanitizers, alcohol and other, see Chapter 9 of Germ Proof Your Kids – The Complete Guide to Protecting (without Overprotecting) Your Family from Infections (ASM Press, 2008).