Hand rubs

Author: Marie Hartley, Staff Writer, 2010.

Hand rubs

Hand rubs are gels or liquids containing antimicrobial agents that decrease the number of microorganisms present on hands. The antimicrobial agents in most hand rubs are alcohols (ethanol, isopropanol, and n-propanol), available in varying concentrations. Because hand rubs do not remove organic material, they cannot be used if hands are visibly soiled. They are sometimes called sanitisers.

Ethanol, at a concentration of 60% or greater, is effective against:

Alcohol-based hand rubs have limited effectiveness against bacterial spores (e.g. Clostridium difficile), protozoan oocysts, and certain viruses.

Alcohol-free superoxidised solutions can also be used for hand cleansing.

Regular household soap

Social handwashing with non-antiseptic household soap removes bacteria and viruses by physical/mechanical means. Household soaps act as a detergent to help remove loosely adherent bacteria and viruses; microorganisms are not actually killed by these products. Downsides to washing hands using this method include:

Healthcare settings

Healthcare settings traditionally use chemical hand-wash products, such as chlorhexidine in addition to alcohol. These products have antimicrobial/antiseptic properties and are effective against many bacteria, fungi, and viruses. 

Most studies comparing the effectiveness of hand rubs against regular hand-washing have been performed in healthcare settings. These data show that hand rubs are at least as effective as traditional hand-washing with chemical hand-wash products in reducing bacterial counts on skin and in reducing hospital-acquired infections. Furthermore, hand rubs are less irritating to the skin than traditional chemical hand-wash products.

Side effects of hand rubs

It is uncommon to experience side effects from using hand rubs. Evidence shows that hand rubs are less damaging to the skin than soap and water. However potential skin reactions from hand rubs include:

These reactions are more likely in those with existing dermatitis or sensitive skin.

Pros and cons of hand rubs
ProsCons
Easily accessible – can be located in areas that are unsuitable for sinks Small children should be supervised while using, as ingestion can be harmful
Easy to carry when out and about, no drying facility necessary Effectiveness is reduced if product is not used according to directions
Easy and quick to use Limited effectiveness against some micro-organisms
Cause less dryness and irritation than soap and water  
More effective than regular household soap and water for hands that are not visibly soiled. Less chance of cross-contamination with surrounding objects  
At least as effective as chemical hand-wash products used in healthcare settings  

When to use hand rubs

How to use hand rubs

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