What is the best way to clean your hands?

By Michael Katz

HAND SANITIZERS v. WASHING YOUR HANDS

With the spread of COVID-19 into an international pandemic, we have been instructed to maintain distancing and frequently wash our hands.  People have also flocked to stores to purchase hand sanitizers making them hard to find in most locations.

Many of us have searched our drawers, closets, and cabinets for the small ½ to 1 ounce bottles we may have purchased for travel or received as give-a-ways at conferences, events, group rides, etc.  (I myself gathered eight such bottles.)   Important…you need to examine them for expiration dates. 

Hand sanitizers are designated as over the counter (OTC) drugs and are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found that a minimum of 60% alcohol is necessary for effectiveness.  Most hand sanitizers will have an expiration date of 2-3 years.  Alcohol, the active disinfecting agent, evaporates, even in unopened bottles, because although tightly closed, the caps are not airtight.  The 2-3 year expiration date is an estimate of when the alcohol goes below 90% of the percentage listed on the bottle’s label.

Expired hand sanitizer is not dangerous to use.  It simply may be less effective or not effective at all if too old.

It is interesting to note that the CDC and information from Rush University Medical Center located in Chicago, IL and Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore MD, both nationally recognized facilities, states that frequent hand washing with soap and water is actually as effective and often more effective than sanitizers with regard to combating the COVID-19 virus.  This is particularly the case if your hands are dirty or sweaty (like after a bike ride!) 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), citing the CDC says that, “The best way (emphasis added) to prevent the spread of infections and decrease the risk of getting sick is by washing your hands with plain soap and water, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is essential, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after coughing, sneezing, or blowing one’s nose. If soap and water are not available, CDC recommends consumers use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Rush  University Medical Center findings conclude that, “[Hand sanitizers are] useful in the hospital, to help prevent the transfer of viruses and bacteria from one patient to another by hospital personnel. Beyond a hospital setting, it’s very difficult to show that hand sanitizing products are useful.  Outside of the hospital most people catch respiratory viruses from direct contact with people who already have them, and hand sanitizers won’t do anything in those circumstances. And they haven’t been shown to have more disinfecting power than just washing your hands with soap and water.”  

Johns Hopkins Medicine also reports, “Experts agree that the best method for cleaning hands is washing for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.”

In particular, the above cited experts agree that should you cough or sneeze into your hands, hand sanitizers often do not penetrate the mucus surrounding a virus or bacteria, while hand washing, even with ‘plain’ soap and not anti-bacterial soap, does remove the mucus along with any virus or bacteria present.  (Do you know if the last person to have touched a door knob sneezed before touching it?)

In short, hand sanitizers can lose effectiveness over time and, even at full strength, are not a total substitute for hand washing.  Don’t stop using hand sanitizers, but, washing your hands, when you can, is recommended by experts as the best practice for protection against germs, bacteria and viruses.  Be safe.

Michael A. Katz
White Clay Bicycle Club
Safety and Education Committee Chairperson