There are a few standards that everyone keeps on them in their bag. Moisturizer, chapstick, and a bottle of hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizer, with Purell being the eponymous brand name, is available in many public buildings, and some people use it following every touch of a door handle. Purell is a watery gel that is rubbed into one’s hands as a sanitizing agent in lieu of available soap and water. There are different types of hand sanitizer, but the active ingredient in Purell and many common brands is simply ethanol, which universally kills bacteria by dissolving their cell membrane and destroying proteins.
While hand sanitizer is known to be very effective at killing bacteria, for some people it serves as more of a security blanket in response to any and all skin contact.
The question is, does the availability of hand sanitizer provide a false sense of sanitation?
However hand sanitizer does not fully protect against viruses, the pathogens responsible for many common contagious illnesses such as the common cold and the flu. While high alcohol percentage hand sanitizers can in fact reduce your viral load and there is some evidence that it’s use can decrease infections from gastrointestinal viruses, airborne pathogens such as flu are not typically transmitted through dermal contact and their incidence does not appear to be significantly decreased by hand sanitizer use.
Despite these caveats, it does seem that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are overall quite effective in reducing germs that would otherwise be spread by dermal contact. While using hand sanitizer, be sure to keep in mind that continual rubbing for 15sec or more is required for full effect. As mentioned earlier however, not all hand sanitizers are alcohol-based. Some hand sanitizers act through the presence of an antibiotic, typically triclosan or triclocarban. These antibiotics have recently been banned from hand soap and body washes. Reasons for the discontinuation of triclosan in wash products include promoting antibiotic resistance, evidence of health risks such as endocrine (hormone) disruption, and not being any more effective than traditional soap. Therefore, be sure to use only alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Overall, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are indeed an effective sanitation tool for use on the go. Even the best hand sanitizers however are no match for soap and water, which act indiscriminately on all pathogens, are better for washing off chemicals, and can additionally cut through dirt and grease. In short, do not forgo standard hygiene due to the use of hand sanitizer. It can be an effective tool, but it should not be considered a miracle cure.