Do hand sanitizers work?

    Flu season is around the corner – and already the H1N1 pandemic flu has returned to Philadelphia. Public health officials are sticking to their main message: wash your hands.

    As flu season approaches, hand sanitzer pumps appear to be popping up everywhere, including offices, university buildings, and hospitals. WHYY’s health and science reporter Kerry Grens looked into how well they work to keep hands germ-free.

    Listen: [audio:090925kgclean.mp3]

    Hand sanitizers are those transparent gels that work by killing germs with alcohol.

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    Fekete: This has become our number one go-to hand hygiene product.

    Thomas Fekete is chief of infectious disease at Temple University. He says sanitizers can destroy germs such as bacteria.

    Fekete: And it turns out they’re also effective against viruses, which of course we worry a lot about in the context of the seasonal flu and now of course the novel H1N1 swine type flu that we’re looking at.

    Washing with soap and water can also get rid of germs.

    Fekete: Done properly they’re both equally effective, but doing it properly with the soap and the towels is more cumbersome.

    As far as antibacterial soap goes, the Mayo Clinic says it’s no better than regular soap. But sanitizers do vary in effectiveness, especially if they don’t contain enough alcohol. George Wohlreich is the director of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. He says unlike antibiotics, there’s no concern of overusing sanitizers and creating bacterial resistance – or superbugs.

    Wohlreich: Since the alcohol works by lysing, splitting apart, the virus, there’s no likelihood of a resistance, of a genetic resistance. It actually kills it.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says alcohol-based sanitizers are a good substitute if soap and water aren’t available, but washing still remains the gold standard.

    More info:
    CDC page on handwashing and using sanitizers

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