The month of February is still ripe for the spread of viruses such as influenza, the common cold and gastroenteritis. Many people rely on alcohol-based hand sanitizers to prevent contagion. We even see ubiquitous hand sanitizer pumps in businesses, CLSCs and hospitals. But are these products a good alternative to washing our hands with soap and water?
Many studies have shown that using alcohol-based gels, especially those composed of at least 60 percent ethanol, can reduce microbial counts on contaminated hands and reduce the spread of some strains of the flu. However, it seems these gels are ineffective against norovirus, the microorganism that causes most gastroenteritis cases. Why is that? Certain viruses, such as the flu virus, are coated in lipids, coverings that alcohol can rupture, thereby killing the virus. Viruses that do not have such a coating, like norovirus, are generally not affected by alcohol. Bleach is effective against norovirus, which is why it is used to decontaminate counters and other objects, but it is too toxic to be used for hand washing, especially on a regular basis.
An American study conducted in 2011 found that long-term care facilities where staff members used mainly alcohol-based sanitizers were six times more likely to have an outbreak of norovirus gastroenteritis than facilities where the staff used mainly soap and water.
In conclusion, the best strategy to avoid winter infections is to wash your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water. Regular soap is just fine. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be used as a complement to prevent other infections such as the flu, but they shouldn’t replace a good old hand washing.