A long raging debate about the efficacy of alcohol based hand sanitisers and gels seems to have marched on over time. It stems back to more than a decade if my memory serves me well, if not longer.
This debate was reawakened in my mind this month, as I continued to observe an onslaught of flu type viruses grip friends and loved ones well into the Spring month of May, a time I did not usually associate with illness or flu and yet strangely it seems to be sticking around like a visitor that has well and truly overstayed their welcome.
I have asked myself lately, why are so many people ill? coughing or in bed unwell posting numerous Facebook posts about how they are almost at deaths door, it’s just not normal, I am suddenly more obsessed with germs that I ever have been in my life, even as a new mother ten years ago, when my whole life revolved around a flurry of Dettol, wipes and hand gels.
Understandably like most people, I have a hectic work schedule, two young children, a new puppy, a constant juggling act between those demanding elements and a counselling course to finish, and a 400 people industry event to organise. I have battled like Hercules to keep the germs at bay, carrying hand gels and rubbing my hands anxiously at every given opportunity where I feel germs are lurking.
Whatever it is, that is going round, it’s easy to see why those useful little pocket sized hand gels that claim to kill 99.9 per cent of germs are flying off the shelves.
Yet the question begs, do hand gels really help?
Show me the science
A study carried out in December 2009 by Ottawa University found that some brands that claimed to kill ’99 per cent’ of germs did not – at the very best they killed 60 per cent, and at worst just 46 per cent. That study although dated, has had very little update, to change those alarming statistics of reality, versus marketing perception.
Few people realise (as did I) that hands have to be squeaky clean in order for many hand gels to effectively work. Recent reports of contamination in widely used antiseptics have now raised new worries, by the likes of Dr. Christina Y. Chang and Dr. Lesley-Anne Furlong of the FDA. This concern is shared by other professionals: ‘Like many cleaning agents, most hand gels will be less effective in the presence of protein matter, such as food, mud, faecal matter or blood,’ says Dr Ron Cutler, a microbiologist from Queen Mary, University of London. ‘You really need to wash off all visible signs of dirt before they will be totally effective.’*
Most hand gels contain alcohol, this helps to kills germs by attacking the outer membrane of the germ. For maximum benefit, a hand gel should contain at least 62 per cent alcohol – but no more than 80 per cent. A hand gel should contain some water, as once the outer membrane of the bacteria or virus has been penetrated it needs water to kill it, research suggests that hands gels won’t protect against gastroenteritis or viral stomach bugs such as norovirus, so why are they littered everywhere in hospital wards?
A number of experts I probed this month, confirmed that washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce the number of microbes on them, If soap and water are not available, then an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol is recommended for use. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands, but only in some situations, t sanitisers can not eliminate all types of germs.
On December 1st, 2010, The death of Harrison Kothari, a Houston based 2-year-old child, developed lethal bacterial meningitis after surgery. His parents, Shanoop and Sandra Kothari, sued the Triad Group and H&P Industries of Hartland, claiming that the alcohol wipes used on the boy transmitted the Bacillus cereus bacterium that caused his infection. The Triad case was only one among dozens of outbreaks involving infections tied to tainted swabs, pads or solutions dating back decades. The case caused much alarm and concern into the efficacy of alcohol hand gels.
Show me the science I always say: so boom! this month, Q Bio Technologies issued an interesting piece of research: the opening paragraph grabbed my attention “Alcohol hand sanitizers are recommended for use by healthcare organisations across the world, including the WHO. Until recently the effects of alcohol gels on skin flora over time have been overlooked. Several “real time” studies of skin flora now show that this advice could actually be detrimental”. The study was led by Dr A. Kemp PhD (Bio), Dr V. Hodgkinson MBBS, BSc, FRCA, FFPMRCA from Nottingham University Hospital.
I studied the research document in detail, feeling slightly foolish and angry that the diligent alcohol-hand-gel-rubbing, I have become obsessed with, when visiting a new born baby in a hospital ward upon entry and exit, or an unwell friend or loved one, or even zealously inflicting upon myself and my kids, has meant little, if anything at all, in truly protecting myself from germs, serious illness and viruses.
There is much confusing information out there, and once again, the first casualty has been the truth and the consumers pocket.
The study concluded: ‘that alcohol on it’s own could potentially do more harm than good by causing a significant rise in skin flora over time’
It is clear that if used, 70% alcohol needs to be combined with another surface disinfectant chemical in order to continue the reduced skin flora effect over time. If you want to protect yourself, in a nutshell, the study indicates you’re better off, doing it the good old fashioned way: soap and water, oh and don’t forget to scrub…