The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic brought a new household favorite to the front line: hand sanitizer. These bottles can sell out within minutes, leaving rows of drugstore shelves empty. Having a bottle on hand is vital nowadays, but do you really know what hand sanitizer even does to germs? Or how long germs can live and how they spread?
What Are Germs?
Germs are microbes, tiny organisms that exist in every living thing. However, germs are detrimental for your health whereas some microbes are good for your health. Additionally, germs are invisible to the eye so shielding yourself from them can be a tricky task.
These microbes most commonly spread through casual touches with other people that carry a germ — touches such as hugging, handshakes, kissing, or even just sharing the same air as an infected person.
Other than avoiding people who are sick, you should watch out for high-touch areas like handles, digital devices, keyboards, and other often-used appliances. Even materials used for cleaning are not really clean and safe from germs, with sponges, brushes, and loofahs being common hotspots for germ growth.
Germs can also spread for reasons outside of your control. Animal and insect bites are common offenders, as well as tiny cuts and scrapes that come into contact with a surface that carries a germ. That’s why it is so important to keep cuts and bites clean and sterilized, and to go to the doctor quickly once you think there is any risk of infection.
Types of Germs
There are four types of germs:
Viruses are living particles that cannot exist without a living host for very long. As such, they try to spread far and fast, infecting as many as possible. They’re responsible for many types of illnesses, including COVID-19.
Bacteria are organisms that can exist in any living thing. They can both cause good as well as harm. Whereas they’re used in some medications and even exist naturally in our gastrointestinal tract, they’re also responsible for many types of infections.
Fungi are the most visible microbe, seen from mushrooms to yeast. They can be built complexly, or very simply, and prefer to live in warm, humid environments. In terms of their status as a germ, they are one of the less harmful germs for most people who have a healthy immune system — mainly seen in conditions such as athlete’s foot. However, some fungal infections can become serious very quickly if not treated or caught early in people with weak immune systems.
Protozoa are organisms that are most commonly transferred with contaminated water or moisture. Parasites are part of this family and can cause infections, among other issues. Although they love water, they can most easily be destroyed in hot to scalding water.
How Long Do Germs Live?
Germ longevity depends on what the type of germ is and what conditions the germ lives in.
Virus germs have shorter life-spans, lasting anywhere from an hour to a full day. Bacteria germs can last longer, with foodborne bacteria lasting around a few hours, ones that hit the stomach lasting days to months, and ones causing skin infections lasting weeks at a time.
Fungi germs can last anywhere from a few hours to a few centuries. But don’t worry, you mainly would have to worry about the ones lasting a few hours. In terms of fungi, it’s best to just watch out for damp areas because humidity helps fungi grow quickly.
Protozoa germs can last hours to months in the right conditions. They’re most easily transferred through water and most commonly cause issues like cysts, but hot water can take away most of the problematic microbes.
The lifespan of a germ can also depend on factors like weather. Hot weather can slow most germ growth or even kill them off altogether, but cold weather allows germs to spread faster and last longer.
Additionally, where the germ lands plays a part in its longevity. For instance, germs stay active longer on hard surfaces like steel or plastic and become inactive faster on soft materials like fabric.
What Type of Hand Sanitizer Should You Look For?
When looking for a hand sanitizer, you should look for ones that are alcohol-based with a percentage of around 60-95% alcohol.
There are two types of alcohol that can be used for hand sanitizers: ethanol (also known as ethyl) and isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol). However, if your sanitizer just says alcohol on it without specifying the type, it’s likely ethanol, as that is the most common.
Hand sanitizers with less than 60% alcohol might not work well enough for most germs or may only hinder germ growth for a short while.
Be wary of hand sanitizers that don’t have ingredient lists on them, as the percentage of alcohol may be off or additives in the formula could mess with the hand sanitizer’s primary function of destroying germs.
Also, those with skin conditions or damaged skin should be careful when using hand sanitizer, so that it doesn’t further irritate or inflame your already susceptible skin. Aiming for a hand sanitizer at the 60% alcohol mark or higher will likely be your best bet.
Additionally, you should discard hand sanitizer past its expiration date (usually 3 years from the manufacturing date). Whereas there is no conclusive proof that hand sanitizer stops working after 3 years, the FDA doesn't have enough information on how effective the sanitizer is after its three year date and therefore recommends not using it after its expiration date passes.
Luckily, you don’t need to look very far for your new hand sanitizer purchase! Our hand sanitizer at Hope Health Supply is available in spray form. Gone are the days of squirting out too much goop and losing half of it on the sidewalk, just take out your hand sanitizer spray and you’re on your way to being germ free!
How Does Hand Sanitizer Work?
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers work by killing the protein layer of many microbes, essentially sterilizing and killing them off. Also, the bacteria killed by alcohol rarely develop an immunity to the alcohol, so hand sanitizer will continue to be an effective product for you for years to come.
However, it is important to note that sanitizers don’t get rid of all germs and that washing your hands with soap and water should still be your first option.
When using hand sanitizer, you should always make sure that you use a large enough quantity to fully cover your hands and that you wait for it to dry completely. Keep in mind that your hands shouldn’t be outright dirty or greasy, and that some hand sanitizers can’t take off certain chemicals.
Additionally, if you use hand sanitizer too often without washing your hands in between, it can create a film on your hands thick enough to trap germs on your hands instead of getting rid of them. Not exactly what you want to achieve.
Some germs have long lifespans and can be a fearful villain, especially nowadays. Although hand sanitizer is a great tool to use in the fight against germs, it should be your second option after washing your hands with soap and water. Wash your hands, use face masks, thoroughly cook your food, keep yourself and your area clean, and be safe!