Dirty Little Secrets
of Hand Sanitizers
For at least a century now, it’s common knowledge that one of the essential conditions for good health is to wash your hands often.
Which doesn’t mean that personal hygiene should stop there. But ever since it became evident that clean hands do save lives, to keep them that way is not just mandatory for living in society, but also very easy to do.
Also for a century, running water and soap for at least a minute or two would do the job. The benefits of this simple habit to improve global health cannot be underestimated. But neither can the correspondent growth of the soap and cosmetics industry during the same period.
So much so that in the past 20 years, while it exponentially increased its production of cleaning products, the industry has been also pushing for widespread adoption of so-called antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers.
The now ominous sight of those “personal” bottles of transparent goo that germophobics all over carry in their purses is now as pervasive as bottles of water and cellphones. The problem is, there are some alarming studies about the long-term effects of such hand sanitizers on our health.
Their main active ingredient, Triclosan, has been linked to disruptions in hormonal activity in laboratory animals, increased resistance to antibiotics, and to accumulate in food chains.
The FDA has been slow in its own research about the chemical and the industry has been fighting tooth and nail against restrictions on its use.
The lack of clarity about the risks of hand sanitizers for the general population’s health may have added an element of confusion to the issue, and disrupted what used to be not long ago a simple and effective hygiene habit.
A recent study, conducted by 2003 Ig Nobel Prize in literature John Trinkaus of CUNY, and published at the Annals of Improbable Research, identified some disturbing trends.
Professor Trinkaus and his team recorded the use of hand-sanitizing station positioned at the lobby of a teaching hospital, with high traffic of medical professionals, patients and their relatives.
Of a total of 500 observations made, only three out of 108 health care practitioners stopped and used the sanitizing station, while 23 non-practitioners (six percent) of the 392 sanitized their hands.
Of course, factors such as the possibility any of the observed could have just washed up prior to arriving, or was planning on doing so at the particular destination to which they were going, were dutifully considered.
Seeking to double check the findings, the informal study was repeated under slightly different conditions and time of the year, but the results didn’t change much. This time, of 500 people observed, 21 (four percent) used the sanitizer.
Time of the year was an important factor to consider, since winter is associated with flu season and there’s a heightened awareness of the risks of contagion, for example. That didn’t seem to change the participants’ behavioral, though.
So, despite our distorted view that, as individuals, that we are considerably cleaner than our ancestors, the evidence, however limited, points to the contrary. With the added bad taste that the increase in choices does not necessarily translate in better judgement.
In other words, we were doing just fine when there was just the reliably neutral soap bar to keep us from being unwilling carriers of disease. The issue became muddled when we were convinced that we needed to upgrade our habits of hygiene.
To summarize it, sanitizers may have started killing the “good” germs, that have been living on the palm of our hands for millennia. They may also have a negative long-term impact on human health and the environment.
And, as public awareness about the risks of these liquid soaps grows, there’s a chance that, instead of simply returning to the old soap and water combo, we may find ourselves relapsing on our habits and forgetting to wash up altogether.
And that’s a problem we thought we had it all figured a hundred years ago.
By the way, Professor Trinkaus was awarded the Ig Prize for “meticulously collecting data and publishing 80 reports about things that annoyed him.”