Handwashing is recommended for removing germs from your hands. This is because once germs stay on your hands they can get into your mouth or nose with ease. So, if soap and water are good enough, why would you need a hand antiseptic solution? Read on to understand the reasons along with the benefits.

Hand antiseptics have garnered more attention than ever. The demand for these products has outstripped supply ever since the outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 – more commonly known as corona virus. But in general, viruses are considered to have inbuilt mechanism to resist antiseptics. Fortunately, COVID-19 happens to have an outer surface that is more vulnerable to alcohol. On the other hand, certain viruses – such as the rhinovirus, etc – are relatively safer against application of alcohol.

There are two kinds of hand antiseptics namely, washes and hand-rubs. Washes with antiseptic properties are special category antiseptic soaps. These are used with water. The lather is washed soon after cleaning your hands.

Rubs or hand sanitizers are used for cleaning your hands whenever soap is unavailable. While using such a solution, always insist on one with alcohol content. Ensure that it has 60% (at the least) of its contents made of alcohol. Such hand antiseptics are known to yield effective protection against microbial attacks.

However, not many people use hand antiseptic solutions properly; the major reasons are- wiping the solution off before it even dries on your hands and also, not using adequate amounts of the solution. When inadequate quantity is used, you run the risk of offering only a partial protection against germs. As it is, hand antiseptics do have a few limitations in not being fully effective against microbes such as Clostridium difficile (this infection may be outcome of consuming antibiotics; this can cause near-fatal diarrhea among other problems), Cryptosporidium (the cyst found all around this microbe helps withstand common disinfectants), norovirus (it can cause diarrhea and vomiting), etc. So, not using adequate amounts of hand antiseptics can leave your body unguarded from other germs as well.

Types of hand antiseptics based on utility

Based on their utility, there are two broad types of hand antiseptics; these are consumer antiseptics and healthcare antiseptics. Consumer antiseptics are mainly stocked at schools, homes and public places. These antiseptics can be bought at grocery markets as well as drug stores. On the other hand, healthcare antiseptics are used at clinics, hospitals as well as nursing homes. These are also found in outpatient clinics and offices of doctors.

When not to use hand antiseptics?

Effectiveness of hand antiseptics is highly questionable when your arms are soiled or greasy. In other words, when you find your hands are very dirty and dirt is visible- then using sanitizers to clean your hands may have very little use. A few studies done on the efficacy of hand antiseptics however indicate them to work only on some germs; even when your hands are partly dirty.

The limitations show up when you have gone out on a camping tour or do gardening. These antiseptics may also be of limited use when you handle foods, play a field game, etc. In all these circumstances – where hand sanitizers pose limitations – water and soap is found to be more efficient.

Hand antiseptics are also found to play a limited role while used to remove traces of harmful toxins or chemicals from your hands. So if you have handled metals (especially, very heavy ones) as well as poisonous pesticides, you are advised to use soap and water. If you are in doubt, you can contact a poison management or control center to know how to disinfect your hands.

In any case, hand antiseptics with less than 65% alcohol content may not help kill germs. Many such antiseptics (that possess lesser alcohol content) are only found to help decrease the progression of germs, and not good at eliminating them. Also, such solutions are found to act against a few categories of microbes or germs only.

Role of alcohol in hand antiseptics

Alcohol are renowned for their antimicrobial and disinfecting capabilities. Most commonly used alcohol solutions are isopropanol / n-propanol or ethanol. These are relatively safe items hand antiseptics can be made with. But what lends alcohol such capabilities? Alcohols can naturally coagulate proteins and this property makes the solutions most sought after while manufacturing hand antiseptics.

Water plays a critical role in enhancing the antimicrobial capabilities of alcohol. Without water, the purest version of alcohol has but very limited powers to kill germs such as virus or bacteria.

Purest form of alcohol

Based on alcohol contents in them, hand antiseptics are categorized as alcohol-laden as well as those without alcohol. Alcohol-based hand antiseptics offer the best form of protection against microbes; especially during times when water and soap are not available. On the other hand, antiseptics without alcohol are relatively easy on your skin. Another big advantage they have is they are non-flammable in nature. These antiseptics are made of a substance called benzalkonium chloride. Clinical experts state that such hand antiseptics may need to have a specific concentration of this chloride so as to offer effective protection against virus such as COVID19.

Hand antiseptics made with 65% to 85% alcohol content are preferred to a 100% pure form. Pure alcohol – no doubt – has some antiviral powers. But, it is often a very strong solution for your skin. One of the key – but adverse – properties of alcohol is that it eliminates moisture from your skin’s surface. A dry skin runs the risk of developing cracks and can also give rise to other skin related disorders.

Usage of hand antiseptics and its benefits

These products are used mainly in a clinic, medical office or in hospital premises. The application is mainly onto your skin. Major use of hand antiseptics is for hand washing purpose. It is used by clinical staff to minimise as well as stop infections spreading through their hands. Its use is not recommended for injuries caused by burns, wounds, cuts, injuries in your eyes, etc. Usage is also not recommended for a longer span of time. In general, its use is not advised for more than 4 days at a stretch. There are a few strong variants of hand antiseptics that can cause itchiness or irritation on your skin. At times, a few strong versions have also caused burns on the skin. You are hence advised to dilute such strong antiseptics with a suiting base. You still may need to be careful because toned down antiseptics (with an apt diluting medium) can also cause soreness on your skin. This condition is known as irritant contact dermatitis; a skin condition caused by leaving harsh antiseptics to stay on your skin for a longer time.

Safe use of hand antiseptics

In 2018, food and drug administration (FDA) issued a directive on the inputs that are not allowed to be used in antiseptics. This is a fairly long list. In all, this list features more than 20 items. These items are now fully avoided while manufacturing antiseptics. This directive was needed due to lack of clarity – earlier – on safe levels of using the ingredients prohibited. Also, duration for which hand antiseptics may be left unwashed on skin was another reason why select items were precluded from use while manufacturing.

Out of this list, most of the items were not used actively in hand antiseptics. The only chemical – called as triclosan – was used widely earlier. This substance is known to cause serious impairment to your body; especially to the health of your endocrine system. Many brands of hand antiseptics have successfully eliminated triclosan from their manufacturing processes. It is however safe to read the contents or items used in hand antiseptics prior to using them.

Some hand antiseptics are made with emollients such as aloe vera, and some may contain humectants like glycerine. These additives help in retaining moisture content on your skin. The best way to use hand antiseptics is to apply enough quantities onto both your hands. Once you have let the solution to dry on its own, it is advised to wipe it dry after lapse of say, 20 or 25 seconds.

In an emergency situation, wherein you neither have access to hand antiseptics nor water and soap, you can consider using an antiseptic hand wipe. This however does not protect you against deadly threats such as COVID-19. This is mainly because wipes are made with 40% alcohol content. They are mainly used for cleaning inanimate objects such as surfaces or commonly used items like electronic gadgets, etc.

Differences between hand antiseptics and disinfectants

Each of these two terms is now being used as a synonym of the other. In essence, these terminate microbes. However, experts understand the differences between the two. A disinfectant is used for killing microbes on non-living things. The examples of such things are handrails, table surfaces, car seats, etc. But, hand antiseptics are applied onto bodies. In a hospital, an emergency room may be sterilized using a disinfectant while a doctor may apply a hand antiseptic to clean her hands.

The common item with which antiseptics are made is hydrogen peroxide. This chemical comes under a category of substances called biocides. Here again lies a difference between disinfectants and hand antiseptics. Disinfectants are found to have larger proportion of hydrogen peroxide (or any other alternative biocides) than hand antiseptics.

You are advised to read the instructions listed on the product packaging prior to using a hand antiseptic. In case of rubs, never let children handle it on their own. An adult needs to be always present while children are using a hand rub. This precaution holds good while children use antiseptic wipes as well. Hand antiseptic solutions or rubs are never to be ingested. Swallowing a hand antiseptic solution can be fatal; especially if you have taken more than a mouthful. If a child or an adult has drunk the solution, you need to quickly call 911. If you are a Canadian resident, you need to contact the local poison control center without any delay.

In sum, hand antiseptics are used to eliminate microbes or other germs from your hands. It is generally considered safe to use them. It is not recommended to leave the hand antiseptic to remain on your hands for a longer duration of time. On top it all, you are advised to read the packaging label to check whether items banned – if any – are added during its manufacture. Some of you may think of making your own hand antiseptics at home. But, this is generally not recommended – especially during the outbreak of a deadly virus like COVID-19. Also, hand antiseptics made at home may not be able to strike the right mix of humectants and emollients. Such ingredients are equally important to save your skin from the harsh effects of alcohol.

Above all, after applying a hand antiseptic ensure you are not touching things such as poles in buses or handles of doors. Such acts may expose you further to risks associated with deadly microbes – such as COVID-19

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