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Hand Washing and the Use of Hand Sanitizer Kill Germs

You’ve been told to wash your hands since you were a child. It may seem like a simple thing and it is most important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Germs can live on surfaces for days and the only way to make sure you don’t get sick is to wash your hands frequently. It is recommended to wash your hands and use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol when you don’t have access to water. This will keep you from picking up germs on your hands and spreading them to others.

The Importance of Hand Washing

Hand washing is the first step in stopping the spread of germs and bacteria that cause sickness. Washing the hands with soap and water is the most effective way to eliminate dirt and germs. Doctors discovered how important hand washing was in the 1800s when patient mortality rates were much higher than they are today. People were dying from infections caused by doctors who went from patient to patient without washing their hands in between.

Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th-century Hungarian doctor, is known as the father of infection control since he proposed hand washing as a way to keep down on germs when working in a hospital maternity ward in Vienna in 1847.  It was his theory that unwashed hands could be the cause of death from infection in many of the patients treated in their hospital. Unfortunately, the doctors didn’t heed his recommendations and it was only after his death that his theory was proven to be true.

Why Didn’t They Take His Advice?

The times were different and things were not as accessible as they are today. In the 1800s water had to be pumped in and washing their hands with soap and water before treating patients was thought to be a waste of time and precious resources. While working at the hospital he observed that babies delivered by physicians and medical students had a higher mortality rate from a sickness called childbed fever than babies delivered by midwives and their trainees.

It wasn’t until Dr. Semmelweis discovered that the babies being delivered by the hospital midwives survived because the midwives washed their hands before delivering the babies. The infant mortality rate dropped and people began to see that hand washing was important. After his death, the hospital in Vienna changed its name to the Semmelweis Hospital, in honor of the father of infection control.

Hand washing became the single most effective way to eliminate germs and bacteria. Hospital protocols changed to require physicians to wash their hands before each patient, before, and after wearing gloves.  Eliminating the possibility of germs getting into people’s bodies is the best way to fight disease.

It would be unheard of today for a doctor to die from an infection obtained from a cut with a dirty scalpel but it happened in the old days before the surgical instruments were cleaned and sanitized as they are now. Thank goodness for modern technology and germ-killing disinfectants.

Different Levels of Cleanliness

There are 3 types of handwashing procedures. From the regular hand washing that we teach children, to the meticulous scrubbing of surgeons’ hands before an operation.

  1. Routine Hand Washing. This type of handwashing with soap and warm water is to remove dirt and germs that you may not see with the naked eye but they are still there. Just because your hands don’t look dirty doesn’t mean they are clean.
  1. Antiseptic Handwashing. This is washing your hands with the use of an antiseptic cleaning solution. This is used in hospitals and other health care settings.
  1. Surgical Hand washing. This type of handwashing is the most intense and thorough to get rid of dirt and kill the germs that cause infection. The hands and fingernails are scrubbed up to the elbows with an antimicrobial soap and then gloves are put on immediately after to ensure that no germs get back on the hands.

There is a right way to wash hands that ensures they get clean and germs are removed. Follow these recommendations from the CDC on the proper way to wash hands for infection control.

The Right Way to Wash Your Hands

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the public follow these guidelines when washing hands to stop the spread of germs.

  1. Wash hands in running water and apply soap. It doesn’t matter what type of soap you use. It can be any kind as long as it makes a lather and washes away dirt.
  1. Create a good lather by rubbing your soapy hands together. The friction caused by rubbing the hands together removes the germs and dirt.
  1. Scrub the hands in this manner for at least 20 seconds, or the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
  1. When clean, rinse the hands in running water and use a paper towel or your elbow to turn off the faucet. Make sure not to touch any surfaces with your clean hands.
  1. Dry your hands on either a clean hand towel or paper towel. Keeping the hands clean is one of the most important things we can do to avoid getting sick and making others sick as well.

Many diseases are spread by not washing hands enough. The CDC recommends washing your hands in the manner outlined above to avoid spreading germs to others. When access to soap and water is limited, the use of hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol content is an acceptable substitute.

The Use of Hand Sanitizer Gel

hand sanitizer

Image by Paul Tate from Pixabay

In fact, hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol is one of the three essential items the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends having on hand when venturing out.

Keeping the hands clean is so important that the CDC recommends having hand sanitizer gel with you when going out in public. You may or may not always have access to running water and soap, so this is the next best thing.

Does Hand Sanitizer Work?

It works exceedingly well for most bacteria and viruses. It is less drying to skin because it has built-in emollients that moisturize the skin on the hands. Those who work in occupations that require frequent hand washing will appreciate that. When hands are washed often the skin tends to dry out and crack leaving an opening for bacteria. Soap and water washing is number one, especially when hands get dirty. Wash hands and follow up with hand sanitizer to eliminate germs that lead to infection.

How Does Hand Sanitizer Gel Work?

Perfect for having in your purse or car, hand sanitizers contain ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol or both to kill germs and viruses on your hands. Alcohol kills germs by destroying the outer layer of microbes and dissolves their membranes.

How Effective Are Hand Sanitizers?

The main ingredient in most hand sanitizers is isopropanol (rubbing alcohol) or ethanol. Alcohols have been used for many years as an effective disinfectant against viruses and bacteria. It kills germs by destroying the outer layer of microbes and drying it out. The main point is washing your hands with soap and water, but when water isn’t available, hand sanitizer will work as long as it contains a sufficient amount of alcohol and you use enough of it.

A report based on a study was published in “Emerging Infectious Diseases,” a journal by the CDC, discovered that using hand sanitizer gel for at least 30 seconds can effectively neutralize the corona virus pathogens. The study was based on hand sanitizers that contained either 80 percent ethanol or 75 percent isopropyl alcohol. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended the hand sanitizers.

Hand washing and hand sanitizer gel helps stop the spread of germs but you must make sure to use them properly. Hand sanitizer won’t do you much good if you don’t use it correctly. There is a right way and a wrong way to use hand sanitizer gel.

What Germs Do Alcohol-based Disinfectants Kill?

Alcohol kills bacteria by altering or changing the protein needed for it to survive. It is therefore neutralized and no longer infectious. Alcohol is a disinfectant capable of killing hepatitis B, influenza, rotavirus, E. coli, and salmonella typhosa. It is also effective at wiping out fungus and other pathogens.

To use it correctly, the CDC recommends adding a few drops of the hand sanitizer gel to the palm of one hand, then rub both hands together making sure the gel covers the surface of your hands and fingers and rub until dry. This should take a minimum of 30 seconds.

When Should You Use Hand Sanitizer Gel?

Hand washing is preferred because hand sanitizer may not work as well when hands are visibly dirty. It may not remove all germs. If access to running water is not available, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol is an acceptable alternative. Use it whenever soap and water are not available.

What Should You Look for in a Hand Sanitizer Gel?

Alcohol-based sanitizers should contain 60% alcohol or more to be effective. Formulations between 60 to 95% are ideal. Anything less than 60% won’t kill germs effectively and doesn’t offer enough protection. Avoid hand sanitizers that use an alcohol substitute to prevent drying out the skin. These are not as effective and are made for people with sensitive skin that tends to dry out easily.

Hand Washing and COVID-19

As important as hand washing is, it has never been more important than right now with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Germs and bacteria are invisible to the naked eye and that is what makes washing your hands so important. If bacteria had a color you could tell when you had touched something dirty and would know to wash it off immediately. But without color to indicate infectious material, we touch a million and one things in a day (door knobs, counters, telephones, steering wheels, shopping carts, etc) never knowing what we could be picking up and spreading to others.

An Effective Combination

Wash your hands as often as possible and use hand sanitizer gel when water is not available. If you want to pack a double punch, use a few drops of hand sanitizer after washing to make sure hands are clean and sanitized. Follow these tips to slow the spread of COVID -19:

  • When out in public, and when you can’t observe the 6 ft. rule, wear a mask.
  • Stay home and keep away from other family members when you’re sick.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces in your home

More Ways to Eliminate Germs in Your House

Besides hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer, keeping the surfaces of your home clean is way to get rid of germs that cause sickness. Bacteria can live on surfaces for days but proper cleaning with disinfectants containing bleach will eliminate them from kitchen counters, handrails, and doorknobs.

  • Wear disposable gloves when cleaning. Discard used gloves after cleaning. Use special care if using reusable gloves and wash hands immediately after removing them.
  • Wipe down telephones, light switches, handles, toilets, sinks, electronics, and even kid’s toys to reduce the possibility of infection.
  • If tables or counters are dirty, they should be cleaned prior to disinfection.
  • Wash laundry and linens in hot, soapy water
  • Mop and disinfect floors daily

Soap and water effectively remove germs from hands due to friction (rubbing the hands) and running water. Hand sanitizers kills germs on the hands but doesn’t remove them so washing the hands along with hand sanitizer is an effective combination for killing and eliminating germs and bacteria.

Hand washing is still the best defense against germs. Wash your hands before preparing or eating food, after you use the restroom, after blowing your nose, or taking out the garbage. If you are looking after someone who is sick, take extra special care to prevent spreading the illness to others.

Image by Manuel Darío Fuentes Hernández from Pixabay

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