Our hands are our main tool. We use them every day and come into contact with a wide variety of contaminated objects such as money, computer keys, door handles and handrails. These items are not sterile, therefore they are harbourers for hundreds and thousands of different kinds of bacteria, which can make us sick if we are not careful.

This means that our hands must be washed regularly and there is a whole host of hand washing guides and instructions available to read up on how to do this properly. Most of us understand the importance of hand washing when it comes to reducing harmful germs, however there are times when we don’t have access to any soap or water, and so this is where alcohol-based hand sanitizers come into play.

The medical industry is one example of a profession that has recognised the importance for access to hand sanitizers and dispensers can be found in hallways of hospitals, as well as public washrooms. This ensures staff, visitors and patients have access to hand sanitization at all times and this can greatly reduce the spread of infection. 

Hand hygiene has been noted as the most important thing to tackle, to prevent the spread of infections among patients and workers. According to the World Health Organization, there have been several studies that identify many possibilities of patient care activities that are likely to transmit bacteria to a healthcare workers hands.

Bacteria has been found in health care workers hands from wound care, catheter care as well as contact from taking a patient’s pulse, temperature and blood pressure. Direct patient contact is the only way to contaminate another person via the hands and although washing them before and after contact seems an extremely easy solution to prevent bacteria, it is not effective if you do not wash your hands using the correct methods.

Nosocomial infections, for example, can be transmitted in hospitals as a result of staff and patients not washing their hands thoroughly. Naturally, there are masses of infections present in hospitals but this one in particular could be easily avoided with the correct hand hygiene. The most common nosocomial infections are MRSA and E.coli.

Due to the risk of infections such as this, the use of hand sanitizers in hospitals is important as they allow health workers to keep hands clean in between checking on patients. It is a quick, easy and effective way of preventing the spread of bacteria and reducing the risk of cross contamination.

In fact, the number of MRSA cases in hospitals declined by 30,800 between 2005 and 2011 – suggesting that perhaps new hand sanitization methods and higher quality hand washing are helping.

How does hand sanitization work?

Hand sanitizers were originally designed for use after washing hands or for those moments where soap and water is unavailable. It is usually available in gel form and contains alcohol that has been made to kill germs on the skin. The alcohol works almost instantly to effectively remove any bacteria before spreading illness.

With the many machines and bottles of sanitizer that you see available for public use in our hospitals, it might have you wondering whether or not it actually works. Is it better than hand washing? Does it really kill germs and prevent illness? Alcohol-based hand sanitizer does in fact have a huge effect on preventing the spread of seasonal flu such as colds and other viral based bacterial diseases.

A lot of public health experts will tell you that washing with soap and water is the most effective way to get rid of germs but, the word effective can be a questionable term. This is because many people do not wash their hands thoroughly enough. The recommendation for hand washing with soap and warm water is for at least 20 seconds – or two verses of the Happy Birthday song. You must fully lather your hands and wrists for them to be completely clean.

Hand sanitizer, on the other hand, kills most types of bacteria and viruses in just a few seconds and, whilst rubbing hand sanitizer into your hands for 15 seconds is the ideal amount of time, even poor use of hand sanitizer is better than poor hand washing as it works faster.

As more and more people are opting for hand sanitizer more often and although proper hand washing is supposed to be superior to alcohol, hand sanitizer is likely to be an even more effective means to reducing disease transmission.

Should the medical industry stop using soap and water altogether then?

No, we cannot rely solely on hand sanitizers because although alcohol does kill bacteria it doesn’t necessarily clean your hands, therefore, it does not remove dirt, that can include organic materials such as blood and feces.

Soap and water will always be the first choice for medical professionals preparing to treat patients, if proper hand washing procedures are carried out. There are also a handful of germs that hand sanitizers do not kill, such as the norovirus or E. coli, which is why if you are cooking or work in the medical industry, soap and water is the best choice.

In conclusion, hand sanitizer does work and can be very helpful in keeping our hands free of contamination whilst in hospitals but the medical industry should not rely on them entirely. Most health experts will tell you whenever possible you should wash your hands the old fashioned way, with some warm water and soap but if you are in an environment or situation where you cannot get to a sink, hand sanitizer is a more than acceptable alternative.