In our post-pandemic world, there is a huge reliance on hand sanitisers, alcohol gels and wipes, but they may not be the panacea solution we all think they are.
Prior to the CV-19 outbreak, it was fairly unusual to see someone carrying them on their person day to day. Today they are a staple on every shop’s POS and constant reminders to sanitise our hands are being given. We all use and carry it. And many organisations have placed sanitiser on every workstation or at entrances and exits to promote this good hygiene practice.
While we don’t deny the place alcohol sanitisers have in the fight against the spread of Covid-19 (they have been hugely helpful), there are some underlying risks relating to this new overreliance which we have not all fully considered.
There is mounting research which indicates they may not be most effective substitutes for soap and water, and in some cases, sanitiser use can actually be responsible for increasing the risk of highly contagious viruses spreading.
Hand sanitisers are promoted so heavily because they are efficient, accessible and quick but here are five reasons to rethink your reliance on alcohol-based hand sanitisers for wider infection control:
1. Alcohol Gels & Sanitisers Do Not Prevent The Spread of All Germs
Surprising as it may be – alcohol doesn’t kill all viruses. In particular, they are less effective on nonenveloped viruses.
Norovirus, for example, spreads very quickly through densely populated environments such as schools, nurseries, care homes and hospitals. It spreads fast and can quickly become a serious issue in your workplace. Like all bugs including flu – it also adds yet more stress to an already strained NHS system. It might not be as deadly to non-vulnerable people as the current pandemic is, but the disruption an outbreak of Norovirus can cause is significant disruption to your workforce.
An interesting Canadian study from 2011 found that in healthcare settings, staff who experienced outbreaks of Norovirus were six times more likely to use hand sanitisers equally or more than plain soap and water for routine hand hygiene. Of the facilities that reported preferential use of alcohol-based hand sanitisers, 53% experienced an outbreak of Norovirus, compared with just 18% the facilities that preferred to use hand sanitisers less often than soap and water. Similar findings were found in studies looking at Clostridium difficile too.
Using soap when washing your hands is more effective than hand sanitiser, or water alone because the surfactants in the soap can remove soil and microbes from your skin’s surface. Not to mention people tend to scrub their hands more thoroughly and for longer when using soap. Lathering with water, along with the friction created when scrubbing your hands, work together to remove both visible and unseen bacteria and viruses effectively.
2. Not All Sanitiser Is Equal
Sanitisers need to be at least 60% alcohol to be effective at killing germs. Anything less than that concentration may not work as well and could merely reduce the growth of germs rather than kill them. Be warned of the cheap imitations or poor-quality products with undocumented origins.
It’s also no substitute for soap and water which can remove bodily fluids, grease, dirt and other contaminants. Sanitiser is not removing built up soiling or grime. At best it is only killing or weakening certain bacteria and viruses and moving them around the surface of your hands.
3. Some Ingredients Can Be Harmful to Your Health
Separate to the immediate risks associated with accidental ingestion, sanitisers do carry some downsides when it comes to human health. Besides many removing both the good bacteria our bodies need to thrive, some products can reduce overall immunity.
In a study conducted at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, researchers identified that higher levels of triclosan (an antibacterial agent found in some sanitisers) in children and teenagers made them more likely to develop hay fever and other allergies when compared to those children with low levels.
Equally, fragrances in hand gels can be an issue. This fragrance is sometimes created using toxic chemicals called phthalates that can disrupt your hormones. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, linked to conditions like asthma and reproductive problems.
Some researchers say that frequent use of hand sanitisers will cause a resistance to both the good and bad bacteria, which could be detrimental your immune system overall…
4. Their Impact on Microbial Resistance Isn’t Fully Understood
It’s now commonly understood that over or improper use of antibiotics and harsh cleaning chemicals can contribute greatly to the development and spread of super bugs, but the link between hand sanitisers and bacterial resistance is less clear (at least for now).
There is however rising concern from the academic community that the sudden overuse in hand sanitisers during the Covid pandemic could lead to an increase in the number of antimicrobial-resistant bacterial variants we have to tackle. Any form of resistance would place extra and very serious strain on our healthcare systems.
Alcohol has antibacterial properties in the right quantities but sadly anything that’s antibacterial, also has the potential to increase antimicrobial resistance. Teamed with the use of sometimes genotoxic agents which cause DNA mutations, this can quickly make otherwise non life threatening illnesses much more serious. While not all sanitisers are bad, it’s clear the ingredients in some are actually likely to be contributing to potential problems with microbial resistance.
There are ways, however, to overcome this issue with sanitisers and cleaning agents in general and one is the use of innovative ‘good bacterial’ probiotic cleaning products for cleaning.
Bacteria can also build resistance after the inappropriate or excessive use of certain chemicals, including cleaning products and sanitisers. We don’t often consider the impact dilution can have but using them intermittently or inefficiently can lead to greater overall bacterial resistance thus…
5. Technique is Everything
When using hand sanitisers and cleaning products, it’s worth treating them as you would a prescription medication. Any misuse or misapplication can render them totally ineffective so follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Some other tips include:
- Don’t dilute them.
- Don’t combine different products.
- Don’t use it to remove dirt or grime.
- Rub in for 20-30 seconds and make sure to cover the areas between your fingers, on your wrists, beneath your nails and on the back of your hands too.
- Store safely away from children or anywhere that could risk ingestion.
- Never substitute cleaning products for hand sanitising products! Never ever! We shouldn’t need to say it but we will.
Handwashing and effective cleaning should be the primary response to viricidal and bacterial outbreaks. While sanitisers and gels have their place, we all need to play our part in reducing overall stress on the NHS and this means tackling other prevalent and increasing causes of sickness too. We cannot underestimate the impact microbial resistance could have on the population in the long term.
Ultimately, nothing can replace good hygiene and handwashing practices and communicating this to your teams and properly educating them on why and how to wash their hands will go a long way in preventing workplace absences and sickness, beyond just Covid alone.
If nothing else, focus on promoting regular handwashing with soap and water to your employees and provide sanitisers as back-up for those ‘on-the-go’ moments only.
You may also be interested in further tips on effective handwashing. Read our top tips from Global Handwashing Day here >