Back-to-school tip: Hand sanitizers are good; washing with soap is better

Hand sanitizer is not a replacement for hand washing but it's a good supplement when washing isn't an option, said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott, M.D.
BY GREG ELWELL, For The Oklahoman Published: September 10, 2013

Three-ring binders? Check. Erasers? Check. College-ruled notebook paper? Check.

Hand sanitizer? Double check. Yes, a new item showed up on almost every school supplies list in Oklahoma this year as educators are getting serious about reducing the spread of illnesses.

“If you're looking to kill germs and you don't have access to soap and water, hand sanitizers are a great alternative,” said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “But not all hand sanitizers are created equal.”

Hand sanitizers are generally a concoction of alcohol, water and glycerin with a bit of fragrance in the mix. The key ingredient is alcohol, which kills germs by physically destroying the cell membrane and removes vital proteins from harmful bacteria.

“If the alcohol concentration is less than 60 percent, find a different hand sanitizer,” Prescott said. “Whether it's ethyl alcohol, ethanol, isopropanol or some other variation, it needs to comprise at least 60 percent of the mix to kill microbes.”

Hand sanitizer is not a replacement for hand washing, he said, but it's a good supplement when washing isn't an option. If hands have visible dirt or other filth on them, sanitizer won't do the job.

“The best option is always washing, because it not only gets rid of the most germs and bacteria, it breaks up oils and removes dirt, which give germs and bacteria a place to hide,” Prescott said. “A quick rinse of water is fine, but to really make a difference, a thorough washing is the best defense against the spread of common illnesses.”