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How effective is hand sanitizer, really?

21 May 2018 5:21 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Jerry Steckmeister, Police Lieutenant, Westchester County Department of Public Safety, IPSA Fitness and Wellness Committee Member

Anywhere that you find public safety professionals, you are sure to find hand sanitizer. It’s in their buildings, personal bags and vehicles. It’s always nearby as if it were a magical potion that can cure all ills. Sinks are often bypassed to get to the hand sanitizer dispenser.

The main benefit to hand sanitizer is speed. It is quicker than washing hands and it is portable. When used properly, hand sanitizer can be an effective tool in protecting public safety personnel. But is public safety’s reliance on hand sanitizer sound? According to science, the answer is no.

Most hand sanitizers contain alcohol, generally 60 percent or more. This is sufficient to kill most, but not all, germs. For instance, it is not effective at eliminating norovirus or Clostridium difficile spores. It is an essential tool in healthcare settings, where the primary threat comes from germs.

What the CDC says

Problems arise when individuals overestimate the power of hand sanitizer. As noted above, it is ineffective at killing certain germs. It also may not have an effect on chemicals, and does not remove dirt or grease. In fact, it may cause your skin to be more absorbent to certain chemicals, such as fentanyl.

For this reason, the Center for Disease Control recommends hand washing over hand sanitizer in a non-healthcare setting. When soap and water isn’t immediately available, hand sanitizer is generally a good substitute, but the CDC still recommends that you wash your hands as soon as you are able.

None of this means that you should throw out all of your hand sanitizer. Used correctly, it can be a valuable tool for hand hygiene. In a health care setting, when your hands aren’t excessively dirty, hand sanitizer can provide a quick reduction in bacteria. Outside of a health care setting, if you have access to soap and water, you should wash your hands instead of using hand sanitizer. If you might be exposed to germs, but do not have access to a sink, hand sanitizer might help reduce bacteria, but you should still wash your hands as soon as possible.

Do not use hand sanitizer if you have been exposed to chemicals such as pesticides or fentanyl. Wipe excess chemicals off with a clean cloth and wash your hands. If you have a large exposure or do not have access to a sink, follow your agency’s protocol for decontamination.

Public safety professionals have a wide range of tools at our disposal. Each tool is effective when used properly, but can be dangerous when used improperly. Hand sanitizer is no exception. When it is used appropriately, it can help us to stay healthy and prevent us from bringing unwanted germs back to our family. However, it is important to understand its strengths and limitations.

About the Author

Jerry Steckmeister is a Police Lieutenant with 19 years of law enforcement experience. He is also a Major in the NY Army National Guard. In addition, he is a Director on the board of the Westchester B.L.U.E. Foundation and serves as member of the IPSA Fitness and Wellness Committee.


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