Social Question

CaseyWVU10's avatar

To sanitize or not to sanitize?

Asked by CaseyWVU10 (550points) December 16th, 2010

THAT is my question. I am an avid user of hand sanitizer. A sweep through the grocery store, a stint at the gas pump, after church (**hand shaking**, “peace be with you”), after I come out of the bathroom (touching the door handle), etc. (neurotic much?). But hey, just had a debate with a friend who thinks hand sanitizer is useless. Her argument is that its the friction of your hands rubbing together that really kills the germs and that building immunities up is a beautiful thing. My argument is the overwhelming amount of alcohol that kills the germs. I know it dries your skin out like crazy, but I still find myself grabbing for the stuff all the time. Thoughts? Is it best to build up some immunities or nip that sh*t in the bud with a quick smidgen of sanitizer? Is hand sanitizer actually effective or is it similar to a placebo effect?

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27 Answers

janbb's avatar

I’ve heard it’s not a good thing and that the use of anti-bacterial soaps is bad in general.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

It depends on where I’m at. Most of my life there has been no easisly accessible “germ gel” so I’ve relied on soap and water which has worked pretty well. I’m a germ freak but don’t want to chance wearing my immunte system down by sterilizing myself each chance I get.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

I go to the opposite extreme (I don’t wipe my hands in dirty places, but I don’t wash my hands unless they have been in dirty places, i.e. toilets). As a health care professional, I see people all the time that have weak immune systems because they have never been exposed to the natural environment. If you do not sanitise, you will invariably ingest some of the pathogens in the environment, and these will in turn strengthen your immune system. The vast majority of pathogens are wiped out by your immune system without you ever noticing.

The more you can do to strengthen your immune system, the better. Only start getting worried if a ‘superbug’ (MRSA, VRE etc.) is known to be in the vicinity.

jaytkay's avatar

Here is an article on why anti-bacterial soaps & wipes can do more harm than good.

Battling germs that keep getting stronger
They’re in millions of homes and workplaces across the country: antibacterial wipes that are designed to kill germs and protect you and your family from getting sick.

The Canadian Medical Association wants the federal government to ban them…

Read more:

Claire_Fraser's avatar

It depends on the situation really, if I KNOW that I’ve touched something nasty, I would for sure sanitize.

Seelix's avatar

I think sanitizers should only be used when they’re really warranted. Like after using a public washroom, after being in contact with someone who’s got a virus (like a cold or flu), or in medical/food handling situations.

ETpro's avatar

You’re helping germs evolve higher resistance to antibiotic agents and simultanwously weakening your own immune system. There are settings where you need to sanitize hands, in medical procedures, etc. But making a daily ritual of it is probably doing more harm than good.

Kardamom's avatar

After my dad had heart surgery (last year) I took the advice that was followed in the hospital. You should always wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer before you touch someone who is ill, after you touch someone who is ill, before you prepare food (and many times in between if you have to touch the garbage lid, or if you touch your nose or your mouth or your ears) after you have touched any kind of food that may have salmonella on it such as unwashed produce, raw meat, eggs. And of course after you use the restroom and after you’ve touched the gas nozzle and after you’ve touched a public doorknob (because you don’t know if someone sick or someone who hasn’t washed recently touched it).

You mostly want to clean up if you will be coming into contact with something that is likely to have viruses on it that may be spread to vulnerable individuals.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Let’s take your situations one by one.

A sweep through the grocery store – handling the cart itself with bare hands, you’re touching something that is probably never ‘sanitized’ and is touched by dozens of people in a day, maybe hundreds in a week. So you might be better off simply sanitizing that grab bar before you use it. Otherwise, the packaged goods you pick up from the shelves have not been touched by many hands: the stockers, and an occasional shopper who picks something up and then puts it back. Most of the goods have been packed by machine and then machine-picked and packed into the shipping cartons.

a stint at the gas pump – the main thing here is probably going to be the atomized fuel itself, more than bacteria. Simply “washing hands” would be better than sanitizing.

after church (**hand shaking**, “peace be with you”) – may be a good time for hand sanitizer.

after I come out of the bathroom (touching the door handle) – assuming you wash your hands after using the facilities, if you dry them with a paper towel, then use that to open the door, then throw away the towel when the door is open. Many public restrooms recognize this simple technique and leave the wastebasket near the door now.

Your friend who thinks that ‘rubbing hands together kills germs’ is ignorant. I wouldn’t even ask that friend for a Band-Aid if I were you. Since it takes temperatures of around 140°F or higher to kill most bacteria, that friend would be rubbing hands to an alarming ‘degree’, if you’ll pardon the pun.

It’s wise to clean your hands after exposing them to bacteria and viruses, but I wouldn’t overdo it, and I wouldn’t do it to the extent that they become overly dry and sensitive, because the skin itself is your best protection. If you make your hands too dry and sensitive to cuts and abrasions, then you’re creating a whole new path for infection to enter your body – and making your hands uncomfortable, too.

crisw's avatar

For all the people claiming that alcohol-based hand sanitizers build bacterial resistance:

They don’t, unlike some cleaners that rely on agents, such as triclosan, to which bacterial can develop immunity. Alcohol destroys bacteria; they can no more develop resistance to it than humans can develop resistance to bullets.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

Oversanitation leads to superbugs. It’s the same as the overprescription of antibiotics for infections that’ll clear up on their own. I only wash my hands after going to the bathroom or if there’s something sticky on them, and use lotion to replenish the lost moisture. My parents kept too clean a house, and now my immune system is paying for it – I get sick at the slightest sign of stress.

ETpro's avatar

@crisw Having found life around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor in boiling hot sea water full of sulfuric acid, and now life using arsenic in place of phosphorus in its DNA to live in heavily arsenic laden water, I would not want to place any bets on what life can and can’t aevolve to tolerate.

crisw's avatar


Such events took millions of years. I work in a school and come into contact with dozens of objects every day touched by snotty-nosed kids with poor hygiene . Comparing the extremely small danger of mutations versus the larger danger of pathogenic viruses and bacteria, I’ll use the sanitizer.

deni's avatar

I would only use hand sanitizer if I worked or was frequently in an area where I know there is a ton of germs. Like if I was a school teacher or after I went shopping for a day or spend a while in a grocery store. Grocery carts, YUCK! But yeah, I’ve also heard, and I believe, that oversanitizing your hands is bad because it kills all bacteria when you don’t need to kill it all. We’re too obsessive and worried nowaday.

Brian1946's avatar

From crisw’s link:

“In high quantities, alcohol is cytotoxic to all organisms, however it does not necessarily affect dormant organisms or viruses which have special protective barriers. The action of alcohol as a disinfectant occurs by disrupting the cellular membrane, essentially inactivating the pathogen by destroying its capacity to infect cells. Dormant organisms may have layers of protein, which act as a shell, protecting the internal components of the pathogen from chemical attack. A good example are the spores generated by anthrax, which are resistant to alcohol. Organisms will never adapt to alcohol treatment, because it is a purely chemical process, much like acid treatment. They do adapt to anti-bacterial compounds which target specific biochemical processes, which are easily altered to circumvent such sensitivities.”

I don’t know what the credentials are of the person who posted the above, but what he says makes sense to me.

I usually use an isopropyl alcohol spray at home as a hand sanitizer.

When it comes to protecting myself against anthrax, I have a related USPS advisory posted on my refrigerator door.

OpryLeigh's avatar

I don’t sanitize very often and I’m not dead yet. I wash my hands when necessary (after using the toilet, etc) but I don’t worry too much about being perfectly clean and germ free. I think the world has gone a bit mad when it comes to constant cleaning/sanatizing. Surely we are weakening our immune systems?

Neizvestnaya's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh: Where I work then we’ve had several cases of H1N1 and recently one MRSA. It’s scary out there people!

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Kardamom Bacteria and viruses are everywhere. A healthy person has billions of bacteria living on their skin and in their gut. As I said above, your immune system kills the vast majority of them before they ever activate. They only get to proliferate to the level of disease when you’re immune system cannot keep up, for example when you have a weak immune system from using sanitiser all your life, your are on immunosuppressant drugs, or you are fighting too many pathogens at once.

@crisw Thank you for pointing out that pathogens cannot develop resistance to alcohol. Resistance is a serious issue with antibiotics, but not with alcohol wipes or sanitisers. The bigger issue is that reducing exposure to pathogens decreases the opportunity your immune system has to build resistance. Alcohol works by lysing cell walls, because of the nature of the ethanol molecule. Unless bacteria can develop cell walls that are not phospholipids, they cannot develop a resistance to alcohol.

@Brian1946 If you are referring to my credentials, I am a newly-qualified radiographer (which here in Australia is a three year degree). I have been on clinical placement during the H1N1 breakout (there were seven cases in the ICU at the time), and have worked with several MRSA and VRE patients. As a radiographer, I am acutely aware of infection control measures, as we are usually the ones blamed for spreading disease around hospitals. My comments were referring to every-day life – much more stringent measures need to be used in a hospital. I have also worked in disability care for over two years, with clients who have no hygiene skills.

@Neizvestnaya Yes it is. Awareness is much more important than panicky disinfection of everything you come in contact with.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

I don’t have your medical education credentials, but… I don’t believe that “sanitizer” is going to have any effect whatever, either positive or negative, on one’s own immune system. I don’t believe – from the little bit that I’ve read and the even less that I’ve understood and retained – that we build up “immunity” to bacterial infection.

Isn’t it only viral infection that we build immunity to, because our bodies develop the antibodies needed to fight viral infections that don’t kill us outright? And isn’t that why we aren’t subject to repeated viral infections of the same disease? As far as I’ve ever known we have no bacterial antibodies, do we? I realize that the immune system does provide some defense against bacterial disease, which is why problems with food poisoning, for example, always hit hardest against “the very young, the very old, and those with compromised immune systems”. I confess that I don’t know how that occurs, but I’ve never heard of a process by which we ‘build up immunity’ to bacterial infection.

So how can sanitizing detract from our bodies’ ability to fight off these types of illness?

Kardamom's avatar

All I know is that since I’ve been following the practices that I listed in my post above, which were based on what the hospital does, and what was recommended by the staff when my Dad left the hospital, I haven’t been sick once.

I used to be plagued by terrible colds that always turned into bronchitis and I would be sick for months. A few of these illnesses were brought on by interacting with my little nephew who played on a “jump for joy” at Sea World, that I’m sure was contaminated by fecal matter. I also try to avoid at all costs, people who have the sniffles, a cold or flu, unless I’m the one that has to take care of them. Then I cover my mouth and wash and use sanitizer like it’s going out of style.

Ever since that episode, I sanitize my nephew’s hands after he plays on any of those interactive things that toddlers like. Things that toddlers touch or sit on (if you get my drift) are the filthiest, germiest places in town. The doctor even told us to keep my nephew clear of my Dad until he was entirely healed up.

And the grocery store cart seat is another place where you are likely to pick up that same kind of stuff. I carry sanitizer and wipes in my purse and wipe down those things that I suspect has come into contact with a baby’s butt, boogery nose or some adults germy, flu- infested or piss-covered fingers (like doorknobs at public restrooms, stores and restaurants and tables at restaurants—ever seen those constantly used towels that they use to wipe off the table?).

I actually bought my best friend travel size bottle of hand sanitizer for his car. He was so pleased. He was always very neat and tidy. Neither one of us has been sick in years, whereas everyone around us is sick all the time. They don’t buy into the cleanliness routine.

crisw's avatar


Yes, you do develop antibodies to bacteria, just as you do to viruses, and in the same way. And some of the diseases that we receive immunizations for are bacterial, like tetanus.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Thanks, @crisw. You’re right about tetanus, of course. I had completely forgotten about that. Still, that’s not a blanket refutation of my assumption, is it? Because it still seems to me that we can’t be immunized against most bacterial infections, such as strep, staph, salmonella and others whose names I can’t even recall.

I’m aware of the ongoing current discussions about whether raising children in “too-clean” environments makes them potentially susceptible to certain ailments, but I’m waiting to see more science to either prove or disprove those theories. (I haven’t seen them as more than theories / hypotheses yet.)

I’m also aware that we’ve learned to live in a sort of symbiosis with certain bacteria, such as the e coli that live in our gut… when they stay there!… and that they themselves protect against other bacteria that might be ingested. But we’re not talking about killing bacteria inside ourselves here, either.

Apparently this is a topic that I should start to educate myself about more especially in light of my exceptionally rudimentary housekeeping talents and efforts.

crisw's avatar


“Because it still seems to me that we can’t be immunized against most bacterial infections, such as strep, staph, salmonella and others whose names I can’t even recall.”

Just like we can’t be immunized against the common cold because there are too many strains of the virus- we don’t have vaccines for these because there are so many strains of the bacteria involved. And there are plenty of other bacterial diseses we do vaccinate against, such as diphtheria, whooping cough, Haemophilus influenzae type B, cholera, typhoid, and Streptococcus pneumoniae.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@CyanoticWasp I think @crisw has addressed your concerns well. There is still a huge amount of research being conducted on the immune system, so with some particular cases it can be hard to say. My policy though is to give your body a chance.

I grew up in the country, and spent my childhood digging in the dirt, playing with worms, snails and a pre-guide-dog puppy. My mum vigorously protected me from pesticides, and made me wash my hands before eating, after using the toilet and after playing with the dog, but apart from that I just did what any kid does with a whole lot of dirt. Growing up, I rarely had sick days from school (a total of 3.5 days off sick for all six years of high school). I have no known allergies, and only get a cold every second winter on average.

Of course we should vigorously protect against serious threats, i.e. those that can be life-threatening or permanently injurious, but our immune systems are extremely efficient and adaptable, so I think our bodies should be given a chance before we jump for the sanitizer.

auntydeb's avatar

Two points, quickly, not wishing to undermine the enormous sense being discussed here. One: humans have survived, evolved and managed long enough, as immunity has developed to various organisms. This process continues, it will undoubtedly be affected by modern uses of sanitising and anti-bug products, not necessarily all to the good.

Two: there is no replacement for thorough washing and rinsing. The cursory use of alcohols and anti-bug products is more likely, in my opinion, to weaken the natural antiseptic responses of our bodies and to encourage less hygiene in general. Wash, wash, wash!

another point, all these products do not necessarily kill fungi. Fungal infections are really hard to get rid of if they get a hold. I don’t mean Thrush either, someone I know was recently hospitalised with Aspergillosis which is really horrible. It is not common, but may become so if immune systems do become compromised over time… ick! (The link is to a British site, but there are plenty of others).

GracieT's avatar

I want to add my vote to the want hand sanatizer to just go away crowd. I remember being a kid in the country. My hands were often covered in
dirt and my brother ate it! but
both of us are very seldom
sick. My grandparents (dad’s
side)had a farm, complete
with outhouse. The entire
family lived there until dad was
20, but my grandfather lived
until he died of Alzheimer’s in
his 90’s. I want hand
sanitizers to just go away,
because between them and
also the improper use of antibiotics we are creating a generation of “super bugs”. I think that the more they are used the more resistant diseases are going to become. Yes they are important for people that are in environments that warrant them, but for the average person they are (please excuse the pun) overkill.

Nullo's avatar

Sanitize (or just wash with soap & water) before meals, handling food, and administering first aid, and after visiting the sick.

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