Our hand-cleaning paranoia

A new study says sanitizers aren't going to keep you from getting sick. But is it time to stop stressing?

Topics: Science, Swine Flu,

Our hand-cleaning paranoia

It’s going to take more than a squirt of Purell to make you invincible. Just in time for back-to-school and flu season, a University of Virgina study out this week decrees that those stinky hand sanitizers so popular among your germ-phobic companions have remarkably little effect on whether you’ll fall prey to colds and flu. As the Daily Progress reports, “Influenza infections hit 12 of 100 subjects who used sanitizer, compared with 15 per 100 subjects who didn’t take special precautions.”

But you might want to think twice before you engage in an enthusiastic round of mud-pie making at the nearest preschool and run your fingers all over the stripper pole at Scores, only to cap it off with nothing more than a brisk rubbing of your palms on your pants. While coating your digits in sanitizers won’t do much to save your throat from those seasonal airborne viruses, it will help block the spread of gastrointestinal disease and other illnesses transmitted via physical contact. Alcohol, that magic ingredient in so many situations, is the germ buster that gives it an advantage over plain old soap and water.

Washing your hands old-school and paper towel-enabled isn’t more trouble than it’s worth either, despite a report this week from the American Society for Microbiology and the American Cleaning Institute that made the rather gross revelation that roughly 15 percent of Americans don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom. That figure, by the way, actually represents an increased vigilance — 10 years ago, only 67 percent of restroom users were remembering to wash up after doing their business. Kind of makes you reconsider sharing that platter of nachos, doesn’t it? It’s as simple as this: The Centers for Disease Control says, “Keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.”

You Might Also Like

Having recently gone through a serious health crisis and come out the other side with a compromised immune system, I’m all for illness prevention measures — especially when they’re cheap and simple. My oncologist has specifically stated that frequent hand cleaning should be part of my daily routine — and that of anybody who wants to touch me. You’d better believe I want the nurse who’s changing my bandages, the sous chef who’s handling my food, and anyone who’s just left the ladies’ room to be sporting a freshly cleansed pair of mitts. You can’t walk 15 feet at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center without hitting a hand sanitizer dispenser, and I like it that way just fine.

But I’m also comfortable with the old axiom that you’ve got to eat a peck of dirt before you die. Living in New York City, across the street from a public park, I generally assume I will come in contact with at least a peck of dirt, defecation, vomit, semen and rat germs well before lunchtime on any given day. I also have two children, and even with the best of parental intentions, the average 6-year-old is going to have all the hygienic vigilance of a Gathering of the Juggalos.

At one end of the spectrum there will forever remain the adamantly unwashed, the steadfast pee-and-run types. And unless you want to deck yourself out in a Hazmat suit, those people will likely touch your plate or sneeze in your direction. At the other you’ll find plenty of hopefully determined Lady Macbeth wannabes, eager to whip out their purse-size hand cleansers and maybe wipe down all immediate surfaces along the way. Although the latter may have an immunity leg up, both groups will likely include casualties this season in the war on colds and flu.

But I’ve only got so much paranoia to go around, and I have to save some of it for whoever’s reading my Facebook profile. And there’s something consoling about being reminded that a little dirt under your nails or sitting on a bus isn’t going to make the gods smite you with a touch of plague.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>