Efficiency of Handwashing and Hand Sanitizers

Microorganisms are ubiquitous, i.e they are found everywhere. Some are beneficial while others such as Bacillus cereus, Vibrio cholera and Clostridium species are extremely dangerous. Most infections such as foodborne illness, typhoid fever and viral respiratory illness are usually spread by the hands. Foodborne illness such as norovirus infections, campylobacteriosis and cholera disease are often caused by consuming food or water that is contaminated with infectious microorganisms and hands play vital role in the spread of these infections.
Coronavirus is spread by inhaling respiratory droplets that contains the virus or touching contaminated surfaces and placing the unwashed hands on the nose, mouth and eyes. However these infections can be prevented by cleaning hands and maintaining proper hygiene and other precautionary measures. In this article we will be discussing the efficiency of handwashing and the use of hand sanitizer in preventing many infections especially COVID-19.

What is handwashing?

Handwashing is a method of cleaning the hands using soap and water. This technique has been used since ancient times and it is very effective in preventing the spread of many infections such as cholera disease, measles, virus infections, chicken pox and COVID-19.
The Centre for disease control (CDC) says regular handwashing is one of the best ways to eliminate germs, avoid getting sick and prevent the spread of germs to others. However, poor handwashing habit can increase your risk of these infections. For example, direct contact with food and water after using the toilet without washing your hands can increase your risk of cholera and typhoid fever. Therefore regular handwashing with soap and water should be encouraged to prevent these illnesses.

When should I wash my hands?

It is important to wash your hands properly:

  • After sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose
  • Before and after eating foods
  • After playing or coming in contact with animals
  • After playing outside especially touching sands
  • Before during and after preparing foods
  • Before and after caring for a sick person especially those with infectious illnesses such as tuberculosis cholera and covid-19
  • After handling refuse and sewages
  • After changing a baby’s diaper or cleaning them after using the toilet
  • Before and after treating wounds

To prevent covid-19 infections you should wash your hands after:

  • Blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • Touching door knobs, kitchen cabinet, car doors, tables, light switches and other frequently touched surfaces
  • Caring for a sick person with covid-19
  • After every outdoor activities

How do I properly wash my hands?

Thorough handwashing is important to eliminate germs (bacteria, fungi and viruses) from your hands.

Below are the methods of washing your hands properly to effectively inactivate infectious microorganism.

  • Wet your hands under running water that is clean.
  • Apply soap until it covers every surface of your hands including your wrist.
  • Rub hands palm to palm, scrub the back of your hands, between your fingers, under your fingers and your wrist for at least 20 seconds.
  • Rinse your hands under the running water until all fumes are removed
  • Dry your hands with towel, tissue paper or air dry them.
  • Turn off the tap using a tissue paper

What kind of soap is the best for handwashing?

Using soaps while washing your hands is very important to remove 90% of infectious germs and the best soap you can use for this purpose is “Plain soap”. Antibacterial soap do not have any advantage over plain soap. According to the United States Food and drug administration (FDA) there’s no scientific evidence to prove that antibacterial soap is more effective in preventing illness than plain soap and water.
Antibacterial soap are produced with a special kind of chemical called “triclosan” which has some health disadvantages. A study revealed that constant exposure to triclosan in antibacterial soap can lead to suppression of thyroid hormones, stimulation of allergies and lowering of immune power. This study further explained that the use of antibacterial soap that contains triclosan have no advantage over the use of regular soap and water in fighting infections.

Can I use warm water to wash hands?

Yes, you can use either warm water or cold water with soap for handwashing. Both are effective in removing and destroying germs in your hands.

Hand sanitizer

Hand sanitizer contains varieties of chemicals including alcohol that removes microorganisms from the hands. The use of hand sanitizer is very crucial in preventing illness is that are commonly spread by hands. The Centre for disease control and prevention recommends the use of hand sanitizer with at least 60% of alcohol when soap and water is not readily available for hand washing.
The Food and drug administration (FDA) has recalled some hand sanitizer due to the low content of ethyl alcohol and possible contamination of methanol and 1-propanol.
Ethyl alcohol is the essential ingredient in hand sanitizer that inactivate germs and it must constitute 60% in sanitizer. According to research, methanol has toxic effects on human health. Oral ingestion or inhalation of methanol in high concentration can lead to central nervous system depression, blindness, coma and death. A constant exposure to methanol can also cause skin irritation (dermatitis). According to FdA 1-propanol contamination is a toxic and life-threatening and it’s ingestion can result into central nervous depression which can lead to death.If you purchase hand sanitizer and it contains methanol or 1-propanol or it brings up undesirable symptoms during usage, it is advisable you stop using them and get new ones.
The United States Food and Drug Administration have also warned consumers to be aware of hand sanitizers that are packaged in food and drinks containers which may become life-threatening and even result into death when ingested. According to FDA these hand sanitizers are packaged in water bottles, juice bottles, children’s food pouches, beer cans and vodka bottles. Some of these handsanitizers also contain food flavours such as chocolate or raspberry. Therefore it is very important that you check every food products you purchase including their label to avoid ingesting hand sanitizers that appears in food and drinks containers which may cause serious health damage and death.

How to use hand sanitizer

Hand sanitizer are only recommended when soap and water is not available for handwashing.

To effectively use a hand sanitizer you must ensure that your hands are clean, then:

  • Apply the sanitizer to the palm of one hand
  • Rub your hands together thoroughly and make sure that it covers every surface of the hands including your fingers
  • Continue to rub it for at least 40 seconds until your hands becomes dry.

Can hand sanitizer kill all microorganisms?

The effectiveness of sanitizers depends on the active ingredients they are made of and the quantity used. Hand sanitizer can only reduce microbial load but cannot kill all germs.
A study to analyse the effectiveness of different hand sanitizers against normal flora and some selected pathogenic bacteria ” Staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, Bacillus subtilis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Proteus vulgaris” revealed that the hand sanitizer used for the study was able to reduce the microbial load but not to a satisfactory level. Five different hand sanitizer with 68% alcohol were used for the study and none of them could inhibit growth of Proteus vulgaris although they reduced the population of other bacteria used in the research. This study further revealed that hand sanitizer and more effective in clean hands, i.e hands that are free from excess dirts, oil and greasy substances.
Handwashing is the most effective way of inactivating and destroying microorganism from your hands including coronavirus. According to the Centre for disease control and prevention the use of hand sanitizer is not effective at killing norovirus, clostridium difficile and cryptosporidium. Each of these microorganisms are known to cause different foodborne illnesses. However, research have shown that hand sanitizer are effective in eliminating and destroying SARS-COV-2 which causes covid-19.
Therefore hand sanitizer should be used on clean hands that are free dirts and grease and the hands should be washed with soap and water as soon as you have access to them in other to enhance effective elimination of all germs.

About Adebayo Taiwo

Adebayo Taiwo hails from Africa. He's a Microbiologist , Health Safety and Environment Specialist and a Health Advisor who is concerned about the well-being and healthy lifestyle of people around the globe. The health of my people is my pride.

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