Cleaning: Hand Sanitizers, Hand Washing and Killing the Virus
We are being told, over and over, to wash our hands or to use hand sanitizer. We’ve been told hand washing is better. We’ve been told it’s the only thing we can do….If you understand why… about anything, you are more likely to understand what. And, once you understand why you can figure out, using common sense what to do if the first option isn’t an option. So here’s a bit of why and what that will help you navigate how to clean up yourself and your home.
Virologists don’t know for sure all the ways COVID-19 can be transmitted. For example it appears possible it is transmitted through the oral-fecal route but aren’t sure. We are sure it is transmitted via droplets such as from a sneeze or cough. Droplets can be airborne or on surfaces. And while we know that those droplets once they come in contact with another person can cause infection, we don’t know how long the virus can live on an object or surface and still cause disease. It’s generally suspected it can last 2 days but have some say its up to 9 days….and it depends on the surface. This isn’t because someone is lying, it’s just the best information that we have based on the amount of time the virus has been studied and from studying similar viruses in the past. But it is a problem. It means if someone with the virus walks into a coffee shop and coughs and a day or two later you walk into the same coffee shop and pick up a bag of coffee beans to buy it could have a bit of the virus on it. You then pay for the coffee beans and scratch your face and you and the sales clerk that took the beans from you to scan them might get the virus. Let me say, before you panic, it’s more likely you are going to get this virus with a higher exposure…more virus particles over a longer period of time, but the point is we just don’t know everything there is to know about the coronavirus.
We do know droplets are most likely to cause infection if they are moved from the person who is infected to the mouth or nose of a person who is not infected. They can move through the air or from one person, to an inert surface and then to another person’s hand and then, to their nose or mouth.
That’s why there is so much in the news about how often you unconsciously touch your face (a lot) and how to wash your hands (for longer than you do). Because, if you can get the virus off your hands before you touch your face than you are less likely to get infected.
We do also know that this virus is killed with common disinfectants – like ethyl-alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide. That’s good news. It means if the virus is on you and you spray your hand with hand sanitizer you can kill the virus.
So why is washing with soap and water better than using hand sanitizer? A couple reasons stand out: first, because you can be more thorough washing your hands, a spray is likely to miss parts of your hands, the gel is possible to wipe off before it’s completely eradicated the virus and if you actually spend enough time at the sink rubbing the soap all over your hands and fingers and cleaning under your nails, you’ll get spots you’d miss otherwise. Second, most hand sanitizers don’t loosen up and remove grease and debris. So if you still have this on your hands you could also still carry bacteria with it. Finally, several bacteria that can cause disease are resistant to hand sanitizers and washing your hands well can remove them.
Anti-bacterial soaps aren’t better, in fact they may be worse because they can kill good bacteria and possibly increase antibiotic resistance over time.
What about hand sanitizers or cleaners made with natural products? They might work, but because we haven’t studied them against coronavirus, or possibly any virus, there isn’t a way to say they will work. For example, many natural cleaning products use thyme and other plant-based oils with anti-viral/anti-bacterial and anti-fungal products. They might kill the coronavirus, but we don’t know if they will or not. If you have natural hand sanitizers at home, read the label. You want a minimum of 60% alcohol. If it doesn’t list alcohol on the label, and, if you have access to alcohol-based sanitizers or good hand washing choose those options first.
Let’s say you rushed to the store to buy sanitizer only to find it’s already sold out?
You still have options. The first is to make your own sanitizer. Buy some rubbing alcohol and a spray bottle. If you can find it buy some Aloe Vera Gel. The best alcohol is the highest concentration (90%) but at this point just buy what’s still in stock! The ratio for your hand sanitizer is about 3:1 alcohol to gel. But this isn’t’ science -the gel is just a carrier and the goal is to get the virus with the alcohol. You can add essential oils if you like. You can use alcohol in a spray bottle to wipe down counters bannisters, hand rails, etc.
Is the store out of alcohol too? Wash your hands with soap and water.
Use the natural products you have if you can’t wash your hands.
Finally, consider carrying around some disposable gloves and use these to touch often touched, but not often cleaned surfaces – like the pump at the gas station.
Something else to think about… it’s harder to get cloth surfaces clean quickly. When you wash your hands, you might be in the habit of rolling up your sleeves. If you do this after touching virus and before washing your hands you might be carrying this or some other virus around on your clothes. You can throw them in the wash, but just be aware of this, it’s logistically harder to get the virus off of cloth than plastic, metal, skin etc.
Take away: The goal of cleaning your hands and surfaces is to prevent picking up droplets, dried up virus from body fluids, and moving it from a surface to your mouth or nose. Alcohol kills the virus, but not some bacteria. Hand washing, done right is best and so is avoiding contact in the first place if you can.