In the winter of 2007, my friend introduced me to the hand sanitizer for the first time. Although unimpressed, I had little choice but to use it. Vials of the oddly-scented liquids gave us some succour from the unreliable taps and shoddy water supply of the Mumbai University campus where we were both pursuing our Masters in Literature.
Eventually, she moved on from vials to a large bottle of a medicated brand, which she carried in her bag — all 750 ml of it. “Industrial strength,” we’d crack up. She’d, of course, in her own endearing way, scoff at her unrefined friends.
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She had her reasons. In her defence, practically half of the city must have hung on to the handles of the Churchgate-bound train that she took every day to Santa Cruz. Even if you are half the germophobe she is, you’d agree with why she carried them.
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She and I belonged to opposite camps when it came to the hand sanitizer. My friend swore by it, and I didn’t trust anything that claimed to “clean” without lather or water. And more importantly, it made my hands feel worse and stickier than before. So much for cleaning. Ugh!
Despite our on-and-off squabbling over the hand sanitizer, she and I are still friends 13 years later. It will take more than just ethanol to erode our sterling friendship.
Over the years, whenever I see a bottle of the sanitizing liquid on someone’s table or hanging from their handbags, I’d think of our little light-hearted banters. And then be reminded how vile sanitizers actually are.
Our mutual friend took it a step further by always bringing back Bed Bath and Beyond hand sanitizers for the group after her every US trip. It became a running joke.
Endearing? Yes. But was it enough to convince me? I still believe that these icky things should be banished from the face of the earth.
Why I hate the hand sanitizer
In 2020, the hand sanitizer jostled into my life in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Panicky buyers cleaned out medical store aisles overnight by bulk buying these medicated liquids.
Hand sanitizers were finally getting their moment under the sun during the COVID times. Just look at the search trends.
I know what you are thinking: “But Sandhya, that’s an unjustified amount of hatred for something inanimate.”
Let me explain. Not just the hand sanitizers themselves, I also hated the culture it bred. I resented people who “good-naturedly” offered it to me as if I were growing bacteria in my hands. Suddenly, everyone thought themselves too good for soap and water.
“No, I will not sanitize my hands before I pet your dog!”
Yes, it is personal. And yes, I know these are not good arguments to rile up the world against hand sanitizers. So, I’ll try to convince you with (wait for it) science!
**Cue Jesse Pinkman.**
Why you should hate them too
- Soap and water are better. They do a more thorough job of killing germs than alcohol-based sanitizers do. Alcohol cannot destroy Cryptosporidium, norovirus and Clostridioides difficile, parasites that cause violent diarrhoea among other things. Now, I am no scientist. But I know for a fact that no one wants violent diarrhoea.
- Hand sanitizers don’t protect against grease or dirt. If your hands are grimy, you will eventually need good old soap and water.
- They don’t protect against chemicals and pesticides. While they may do a decent job of removing pathogens, hand sanitizers don’t work against harmful chemicals, heavy metals or pesticides. Again, soap and water to the rescue.
- Ethyl alcohol-containing hand sanitizers are flammable, although incidences of fire are quite low. But why take a risk?
- Microbes, especially protozoans, non-enveloped viruses, are only temporarily inactivated.
- Frequent hand sanitizing with alcohol-based formulations can also irritate your skin. It can lead to contact irritant dermatitis, causing dryness, itching, irritation, and skin cracking.
- Ok, this may sound outrageous. But some researchers are wary of “unintentional alcoholization” seen in healthcare workers who sanitize their hands 30 times a day. Although these levels are not alarmingly high, there are no studies to check how it may affect foetuses in pregnant women.
- The American Association of Poison Control Center reported 9504 cases of alcohol poisoning in children from hand sanitizers in early 2020. It said that a small amount of alcohol can cause vomiting, confusion, drowsiness, and in severe cases, respiratory arrest and death.
- Frequently dousing your hands with sanitizers can also increase chances of microbial resistance and viral diseases.
- Hand sanitizers are made of ethanol, isoproply alcohols, hydrogen peroxides in varying measures. These combinations can be toxic for humans beings and also the environment.
But we should give credit where credit is due. Hand sanitizers work well in situations where soap and water are not readily available, says CDC. But you need a solution that has over 60% alcohol. You can also use it if you have visited someone in the hospital and need a quick clean up.