Sanitizers are pleasant, handy, easily portable and make for an effective tool to combat infections, right? Of course! How can there be anything wrong with something that revolutionised the concept of hand washing in recent times, you ask? Sure sanitizers are convenient, they are useful and can offer protection against germs, but as with so many new-fangled ‘conveniences,’ it is important to know all about the possible downsides as well.
There is more to sanitizers – they are very convenient to use especially when soap and water are not available; they are particularly useful if one is out with little kids – who tend not to be too concerned with hand hygiene. When in shared or public spaces, it is a good idea to use a drop of sanitizer after having used a public restroom, touched lift buttons, staircase rails and frequently-used door handles.
During the flu season, or at times when there is an epidemic like situation, these can help protect individuals by preventing some types of infections and their spread. Most hand sanitizers are available in small to very small package sizes and can slip easily into pockets, purses, car glove compartments, baby bags, etc.
It is safe to assume that sanitizers kill at least some germs and that in a pinch, they give you reasonably clean hands in the absence of soap and water. Sanitizers, however, are not a substitute for good old hand washing. While they are OK to reduce the presence of germs, they are not of much use when one's hands are visibly dirty – in other words sanitizers will not get rid of dust, dirt, grime, grease or food debris from your hands.
For a sanitizer to be effective, it has to contain at least 60% alcohol. And for you to get the optimal benefit, you must apply the sanitizer to your hands, rub for at least 20 seconds taking care to cover all surfaces of the hands and fingers, between fingers and to wait until the liquid has evaporated.
It is also important to remember that sanitizers have limited efficacy and can be quite ineffectual against certain types of germs – here actual hand washing is best. As for the effectiveness of the so-called ‘natural’ or ‘alcohol-free’ or the DIY homemade sanitizers – these may be significantly less effective against germs than other varieties.
Some sanitizers have ingredients such as triclosan; thought to pose certain risks to human wellbeing. Another reason that some experts give for avoiding the use of hand sanitizers is that frequent and copious use could lead to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. Due to the overuse of sanitizers, and as a matter of habit, the antibacterial agent in the product could contribute to the emerging problem of antibiotic resistance and the development of difficult or impossible to treat infective microorganisms.
Remember that NRI cousin who falls ill the moment he arrives in India? While you seem to be able to eat or drink anything and go anywhere without any problem. On the other hand, that poor fellow gets diarrhoea or some other infection at the hint of anything unsanitary! The thing is that many of us Indians have a natural, healthy immunity which we must allow to function normally.
It is best not to mollycoddle kids and to protect them from every little thing (or to do the same for adults either). Let them have a few mild infections so that the body builds up a natural resistance to bugs and dirt. Our diet and other factors contribute to our acquired immunity – why weaken this? Remember, when that sanitizer kills germs, it kills the bad and the good – so even the friendly bacteria dies along with the harmful variety.
There is a widely accepted theory that too much cleanliness is bad for us; that humans evolved to live in environments with significant amounts of dirt, germs, parasites and so on. According to the hygiene hypothesis, the reason why so many kids in developed countries have allergies, asthma and food intolerances is because they have been denied exposure to infective agents, parasites and symbiotic agents early in life. They lead such protected lives in such sanitized environments; that their natural immunity is suppressed and not permitted to develop naturally.
Follow these thumb rules – use a sanitizer only occasionally, if soap and water are unavailable. Use when there is an outbreak of an airborne viral infection among the general populace, especially when you are in public spaces and touch commonly used surfaces. Use a good quality product that is known to be effective. In other words, use a sanitizer sparingly and don’t imagine it is a magic bullet solution!
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