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Photo illustration by Cathie Rowand | The Journal
At the pump

Cleanliness at hand

Sanitizer can thwart illness, local docs say, if you use it correctly

Now that cold and flu season is upon us, we just might be reaching more often for hand sanitizer.

But is there a right or wrong way to use the ubiquitous alcohol-based gel sanitizer products?

Yes, says Dr. Deborah McMahan, commissioner of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health. And she and other health experts have some tips for making the most of them.

Don’t use hand sanitizer all the time. That’s because friction and water remove dirt, and soap helps get rid of germs and grease, McMahan says. Hand sanitizers are designed for times when soap and water are not available.

Don’t expect hand sanitizer to remove or kill all germs. Dr. April Morrison, infectious diseases specialist with Lutheran Medical Group, says one example is Clostridium difficile, common bacteria that cause diarrhea. Sanitizers kill micro-organisms because alcohol physically breaks down their cell walls, she says. But C. difficile reproduce by spores, which aren’t affected.

“The preferred method of handling C. difficile is hand-washing with soap and water,” she says.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports sanitizers also may not be as effective against intestinal-disease-causing norovirus and Cryptosporidium parasites. So, use the sink when you can after toileting or diaper-changing.

Don’t scrimp. McMahan says many people spread sanitizer on their palms but neglect their fingertips, under their nails and around their cuticles.

Advice from the doctor, who uses sanitizer dozens of times a day? Place a dime-sized dab of sanitizer in both palms, dip each of your fingertips in it and massage down each finger, including the web between the fingers.

Spread the rest on the palms and the back of the hands up to the wrists. Then allow for 20 to 30 seconds of drying time. Wet sanitizer can be contaminated or rub off.

Don’t let your hands dry out. Use moisturizer if you use hand sanitizer frequently. Sanitizers need to be at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective, according to the CDC.

But the alcohol is drying and could cause hands to crack, says McMahan, who adds that she is a regular bedtime and morning moisturizer user.

If your hands crack, she says, that’s an ideal place for germs to enter. “Which kind of defeats the purpose,” she says.

Don’t forget. Regardless of method, the CDC recommends cleaning your hands before, during and after preparing food, especially after handling raw meat and before touching vegetables and fruits eaten raw; before eating; before and after caring for a sick person or treating a cut or wound; after using the toilet or changing diapers; after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; after touching an animal or a pet’s food or waste; and after touching garbage.