Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizers and Antibiotic Resistance

Fact and Fiction about Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizers and Antibiotic Resistance

Samantha Williams


By Samantha Williams

Director of Public Relations, GOJO Industries

It seems the topic of antibiotic resistance and superbugs is in the news media often. This is a serious threat affecting many people. But there is also a lot of misinformation and misappropriate correlation between antibiotic resistance and bacteria resistance.

To distill fact from fiction related to hand sanitizers and super germs, GOJO Microbiologist and Research Fellow Dave Macinga, Ph.D., provided the facts.

SW: Does using alcohol-based hand sanitizers create super germs?

Dr. Macinga: No, this is a misperception. Using alcohol-based hand sanitizer does not create super bugs or contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, as the overuse of antibiotics does. The active ingredient in most hand sanitizers is ethyl alcohol which acts in a completely different manner than antibiotics. Alcohol kills germs within seconds by physically destroying the cell membrane and denaturing proteins within the bacteria. Because of the rapidness of the killing and the physical nature by which it acts, there is no mechanism by which the germs can become resistant to it.

Furthermore, because alcohol evaporates from the hands within seconds the bacteria are never exposed to low levels of alcohol so there is no opportunity for adaptation to it. According to the National Institutes of Health, the best strategy for combating the spread of drug-resistant bacteria is for everyone to keep their hands clean.

SW: Do alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill the good germs (germs that live naturally in your skin) on my hands as well as the bad germs (germs you pick up that may make you sick)?

Dr. Macinga: Alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill the bad germs very effectively. These are also referred to as transient microflora and are germs your hands pick up when they touch your surroundings. They are located on the outer surface of the skin and are easily killed by the alcohol in hand sanitizers. However, alcohol-based hand sanitizers have minimal effects on the good germs or resident microflora. This is because the good germs live within the various layers of the skin and within pores and hair follicles and they are not accessible to the alcohol.

SW: Why is good hand hygiene so important in decreasing the spread of germs?

Dr. Macinga: Hand hygiene is the single most important measure we can take to prevent the spread of germs.  And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance in healthcare, they have demonstrated that hands are the number one way by which we transmit germs from one person to another.  So in order to disrupt the transmission of microorganisms we need to clean our hands.  This becomes our number one tool in preventing the spread of germs.

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