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Guest authored by former Seattle Times columnist, Susan McGrath. 

You’re surrounded by people with runny noses. Every time you open or close the car door you’re picking up a sinister film of toxic road dust. And you’ve been petting the dog, who has just been, well, never mind. Time to attend to your hands. What do you reach for?

Basically you have three choices. Soap, antibacterial soap, and hand sanitizer.

We can simplify things right off the bat by voting antibacterial soap off the island.

Here’s why:

a) Boatloads of research have shown the added antibiotic to be no more effective at reducing the number of germs on your hands than plain old soap is.

b) The antibacterial chemical commonly used is Triclosan, a suspected hormone disrupter.

And c) antibacterial soap may be contributing to the scary spread of resistant bacteria.

Now we’re down to two contestants: the time-honored soap-and-water and the futuristic clear gel you rub into your hands, commonly known as hand sanitizer. How does each work? Differently.

Hand sanitizer, in its original form (think Purell), relies on direct contact with alcohol to kill germs. The gel is a clever way of allowing you to distribute the alcohol thoroughly rather than having it simply pour down your sleeve, as a liquid would.

On the plus side

Hand sanitizer with a solution containing at least 60% alcohol has been shown to be effective at killing many of the kinds of infectious bacteria people get on their hands, and there’s no evidence it creates resistant microbes.

The downside

Hand sanitizer doesn’t work on a couple of the worst offenders, namely C. difficile (a bacterium deadly to the elderly and immune-impaired that plagues nursing homes and hospitals), Norovirus (think cruise ships), and some other pathogens in feces. It doesn’t kill microbes effectively on really grubby hands because the alcohol can’t reach the critters’ membranes. And it doesn’t remove contaminants, such as the toxic chemicals now ubiquitous in housedust and road dust. This last downside is a significant one given that putting our dust-coated hands to our mouths is one of the main pathways through which toxins enter our bodies.

Soap, on the other hand,

is a material created by mixing a fat (animal or vegetable) with an alkaline (formerly wood ash, nowadays a synthetic substitute). Soap changes the way water and dirt interact. Soap makes water surrender its tendency to bead up on the surface of things and instead make them wet. Soap makes the wetted objects slippery, loosening dirt’s grip, whispering it out of crevices, and suspending it in water, to be sluiced away down the drain.

On the plus side

Washing your hands with soap and water removes both germs and contaminants. Essentially you get a twofer.

The downside

Human nature. You have to wash your hands thoroughly to clean off all the germs and contaminants on them. Research shows most of us do a sketchy job, at best. Note that this is also true of sanitizer. You have to rub it all over your hands for it to reach the bacteria.

The bottom line

From Toxic-Free Future science director, Erika Schreder: Hand sanitizer is a great product for those times when you don’t have access to soap and water but it’s no substitute for washing your hands, especially before meals and after using the bathroom. Lather vigorously for at least 20 seconds. (Some experts suggest you time yourself by singing the ABCs.) And look for soap and hand sanitizer with as few ingredients as possible, especially added scent. Check out specific brands’ safety ratings on the cosmetic safety database.

And here’s a (only tangentially related) final tip: most hatchback cars and wagons have a handhold slot in the underside of the hatch. Use that handhold to slam the hatch and you won’t have to press your hand onto the toxin-laden rear-end of the car. Alas, my excessively frugal Honda doesn’t have one.

Susan McGrath writes about science, the environment, and natural history for Audubon, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and other magazines. Her syndicated weekly column the Household Environmentalist ran in the Seattle Times for nine years. During that time, she worked closely with the Washington Toxics Coalition (today known as Toxic-Free Future). 

 Ana Rivero contributed her in-depth research and editing-eye to this project.