Flu Season: Don't Count on Alcohol Sanitizers  | Almanac.com

Flu Season: Don't Count on Alcohol Sanitizers 

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Elizaveta Galitckaia

Hand Washing Better Than Hand Sanitizing

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It’s flu season. The signs have begun appearing everywhere, "Flu season is here. Hand sanitizer: two for the price of one."  Don’t count on alcohol hand sanitizers to ward off the flu. 

For years we’ve been encouraged to locate these products around the house, stash them in knapsacks, purses, and glove compartments. At supermarkets, there are alcohol-wipe dispensers to combat germs on shopping-cart handles, etc. 

But new research reveals that the sanitizers and alcohol wipes aren’t effective for quickly inactivating* flu viruses. It turns out that the freshly expelled virus particles are surrounded by a coating of protective mucus that prevents the alcohol from deactivating the virus unless the alcohol stays in contact with the virus for at least four minutes. Apparently, earlier studies had simulated using alcohol sanitizers on samples with dried mucus.

When used as directed, public health experts say the 60% (or higher) alcohol sanitizers are good at killing bacteria that cause disease. But public health experts say the new research on viruses will change the way we all sanitize our hands, including medical and dental clinicians as they move between patients.

How to Inactivate Flu Viruses

Fortunately, there’s a low-cost, highly effective alternative to alcohol-based sanitizers that will kill most bacteria and inactivate flu viruses: plain soap and water. 

In fact, researchers say you don’t even need the soap to inactivate flu viruses. They found that 30 seconds of rubbing one’s hands in plain running water will do the trick. But adding soap to a handwashing regimen will offer further protection by killing more pathogenic bacteria (e.g., e. coli, listeria, salmonella, campylobacter) along with the flu virus.

Scrub for as long as it takes to sing the alphabet song, around hands and wrists and between fingers. Use a nail brush to scrub beneath fingernails.

So, wash your hands often and encourage family members to wash before preparing food, while taking care of sick people, after petting companion or farm animals, changing cat litter, using the toilet, and using common office or gym equipment. 

Here’s a cool hand-washing poster to post as a reminder, especially if you have children in the house.

*Because viruses aren’t considered independent organisms—they hijack the genetic machinery of their host cells to replicate themselves—scientists refer to “inactivating” or “disabling,” rather than “killing” them. Bacteria are single-celled organisms that can be killed by antibiotics and many disinfectants.

Learn more

See how to wash your hands properly.
Flu vaccine selections may be an ominous sign for this winter Choice of which strains to include now seen as "not optimal."

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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