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13 situations in which a hand antiseptic is useless and even dangerous

An antiseptic for hands may seem like a universal remedy for viruses and bacteria, but there are more than a dozen situations where the habit of disinfecting hands instead of washing them will not help in the best case, and in the worst it can lead to serious consequences, writes Reader's Digest.

Photo: Shutterstock

If you were lucky enough to get a hand sanitizer during the pandemic, you are probably using it constantly. Microbes are found everywhere, and for those who are particularly concerned about coronavirus infection, a hand antiseptic may seem like an effective defense. But doctors and scientists say hand sanitizers are not necessarily good. Using them too often can have serious consequences for the microbiome of the hands, the so-called “good” bacteria, which keep the skin and the whole body healthy.

“There is no doubt that using a hand sanitizer — not just excessive, possibly any use — will disrupt hand microbiomes,” said David Coyle, a microbiologist at the California Genome Center in Davis. “This tool really kills a lot of germs.”

Hand sanitizer can destroy both good and bad germs; but since research on what constitutes a healthy hand microbiome is still ongoing, it can be difficult to determine what “too much” is.

This article is about hand sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol to kill germs. The Food and Drug Administration recently updated information on which ingredients are allowed in hand sanitizers, so they should no longer have harmful substances such as triclosan. However, they should not be abused.

You have access to soap and water

You do not need to use a hand sanitizer to kill germs. According to the recommendations of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way to get rid of germs is a proper hand wash, which physically removes all harmful microorganisms and flushes them down the drain.

“Soap and water are always a great way to clean your hands,” says Graham Snyder, medical director of infection prevention at UPMC. - At home, soap and water should be the number one method. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be useful when soap and water are not available. ”

Using hand antiseptics may seem like an easier task than traveling to the sink, but if you can, just wash your hands.

“Soap and water are preferable in all possible situations,” says Dr. Coyle.

Your hands are noticeably dirty

Anyone who has tried to use a hand sanitizer to clean their hands of dirt knows that this only makes the situation worse.

“Alcohol-based hand sanitizers do not remove dirt and are less effective at killing bacteria and viruses when your hands are dirty,” says Dr. Snyder. “It is important to use soap and water if you need to wash your hands from dirt.”

Therefore, after playing sports, gardening, or playing outside, avoid hand sanitizer.

You worked with chemicals

The CDC also notes that hand sanitizers are not very effective at eliminating contaminants from harmful chemicals such as pesticides or heavy metals. In a study on farm workers, those who used hand sanitizer to clean their hands had higher levels of pesticides than those who didn't. Although more research is needed if you are working with hazardous materials, do not rely on a hand sanitizer. Wash hands thoroughly.

On the subject: FDA warns: ads for popular hand antiseptics fool users

When someone sneezes next to you

If you are in the office or on the train, and a sick person coughs and sneezes near you, your first impulse may be to get a hand sanitizer. You are more likely to become infected through inhaled air drops, rather than through your hands.

“Contaminated hands are just one way to get an infection,” says Dr. Snyder. “But this can also be done through inhalation, for example, with the flu.”

To prevent influenza, take the annual vaccine and keep in mind other ways to prevent disease, such as preventing insect bites and the proper preparation and storage of food.

You didn’t touch anyone or anything

Perhaps you are using a hand sanitizer without even thinking about what you have done or touched; it's just a habit. But this can contribute to bacterial resistance.

“Studies have shown quite convincingly that bacteria have become more resistant over time, this discovery has even been tested in mice,” says Dr. Coyle. “This is not really surprising: bacteria can develop and develop resistance to almost everything.”

Thus, the more often we use hand antiseptics, the greater the likelihood that microbes can become alcohol-tolerant. Spray on your hands with a disinfectant only when it is really needed.

You are halfway while walking

Some experts, trying to reduce the use of hand sanitizers, say that this is not necessary if you are not going to eat and do not wash your hands.

“I personally believe that in places like grocery stores, this is completely unnecessary,” says Dr. Coyle. - Instead, avoid touching the face to prevent germs from entering your body until you have access to the sink. When you get home, wash your hands immediately. ”

You sanitized your hands 5 minutes ago

The more you use hand sanitizer, the less your skin will like it.

“Irritation or drying out is certainly possible due to the overuse of such products,” says Dr. Coyle.

Could there be a risk that the skin will become dry and cracked, and this will lead to an increase in infection?

“At least that seems plausible,” he says.

If you intend to use a hand antiseptic instead of constantly applying it, do it once — right — right after contamination, for example, after a handshake: the CDC says you should rub all surfaces of both hands until your hands are dry, about 20 seconds. Also, make sure you do not wipe it.

You touched raw meat

It goes without saying that before and after cooking you should wash your hands: disinfectants will not help here. From raw meat and fish, your hands will become greasy, and in this situation, according to the CDC, hand sanitizers will not work. The FDA Guide for Food Service Workers also emphasizes that hand sanitizer should not be used instead of hand washing. Therefore, after cooking or after fishing, use soap and water.

When someone vomited

Be careful about washing your hands whenever symptoms of an intestinal infection are present in a family member or colleague.

“If you or someone in your household has vomiting or diarrhea, washing your hands with soap and water is better for preventing the disease than an alcohol-based disinfectant,” says Dr. Snyder.

And remember, trying to avoid any germs with a hand sanitizer can create a false sense of security, says Dr. Coyle.

“Let's say you work somewhere where a lot of people touch many things, so you use a hand sanitizer to protect yourself from germs,” he says. “And then you get norovirus, which you could have avoided if you just washed your hands properly with soap and water.”

On the subject: My home is my castle: how to properly disinfect housing during a coronavirus pandemic

You are near the children

Although the hand sanitizer is safe for children, the CDC expresses some concerns that children have regular access to it.

“Using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, as they are designed to come in contact with the skin, will not result in significant absorption of alcohol into the body,” says Dr. Snyder. “But swallowing or inhaling alcohol can cause injury or poisoning.”

Hand antiseptics are often located in places accessible to the child; from 2011 to 2015, nearly 85 calls were received by the US poison control centers about the effects of the disinfectant on children. Fans of hand antiseptics should be aware of the risks associated with such products being readily available in bags, cars, and throughout the home.

You are ill and want to leave home

If you think that using a hand sanitizer gives you the right to go out to people when you are sick, think again.

“Hand hygiene is an important way to prevent many infections, but preventing infections also involves staying home when we are sick so as not to infect others,” says Dr. Snyder.

You just went to the toilet

If you used an outdoor dry closet, a sanitizer may be the only option for cleaning your hands. But if you can get to the sink, repeat again: wash your hands. The same thing happens after you change the dirty diaper, touch the animals or throw out the trash.

According to the CDC, any situation in which, in your opinion, you could contaminate your hands is better to neutralize with soap and water. The only time you should use a hand sanitizer in such situations is the lack of access to the sink.

"Hand sanitizers are probably not very good for your skin, they lead to microbial resistance, they create a false sense of security and do not replace soap and water, which are preferable in any case," Dr. Coyle recalls.

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