Guess What? Purell Doesn’t Work

Hi Readers:  Time to quit pickling our kids in Purell. That’s not just MY conclusion, or even just the conclusion of Slate writer Darshak Sanghavi in this TERRIFIC piece, “How To Sell Germ Warfare.” No, it’s the conclusion of scientists who were surprised that giving free hand sanitizers (and, in one case, even Clorox Wipes) to families and schools failed to cut down on respiratory infections.

That’s because the flu, for one, spreads mostly via tiny droplets in the air. (ACHOO!!!) So touching things is only one way to catch it. Breathing — that gosh darn thing we keep doing — is the other.  Moreover, the article notes, kids touch their mouth or nose on average once every three minutes. So unless we Purell ’em 20 times an hour (which I’m sure some folks are considering), all bets are off. But not all germs.

This is not to say phooey (or achoo-ey) on basic hygiene. But phooey on obsessive hygiene, especially when it seems so profit-driven. — Lenore

54 Responses

  1. Related story from a popular Canadian Science columnist on the CBC

  2. p.s. he says the data suggests that hand sanitizers actually do more harm than good, and that hand soap actually kills the bad germs without killing the good ones (that latter tidbit he mentioned on the radio piece but it is not mentioned in the above)

  3. It’s not about flu, for me. I read about one of these studies a year ago. Still, there are plenty of pathogens which we do spread by our hands, or spread from our respiratory system to our eyes. Reducing gastrointestinal infections is important, especially for kids, who can be hit hard by a bad case.

    Then again, you still need to wash, simply to remove any residue that can harbor germs. I have stopped buying anti-bacterial soaps, since I learned that triclosan is only effective if you let it sit for at least a couple of minutes, and so there’s no real benefit of having it in hand soap. I have wanted to see whether the benefit of having it in a dish soap is there, since germ experts are so quick to tell us how dirty our dish sponges are.

    In other words, you can’t go wrong with Mom’s old test: if your hands look dirty, you’d better wash them before you eat!

  4. Hand sanitizers are nasty. They smell disgusting and make your hands all sticky. I’ll stick with soap and water.

  5. Hand sanitizers and soaps labeled “anti-bacterial” are for idiots. You remove the good germs as well as the bad…you’d rather have those good germs holding the bad ones in check. It is shameful that that so many stores sell “anti-bacterial” soaps.

  6. And especially when all it does is increase the risk of superbugs. Those are getting very scary.

  7. I don’t make my kids wash hands except before and after eating. I usually use water only, though my kids like to play in soap if they get a chance.

    Their school insists on a lot of soap use, even though it gives my kid rashes. I guess it’s the law or whatever, but I think it’s overdone.

    Needless to say, the kids manage to spread germs around with tremendous efficiency regardless of all the soap used at school.

  8. My son’s preschool soaks the kids continuously all day in hand sanitizer. His hands are raw and sometimes even bleeding from the rash it gives him. I asked them to stop, so instead they make him wash his hands with antibacterial soap which is even worse for his eczema. Leave the poor kids alone and let them get dirty! (Incidently most of the kids in his class are sick all winter anyway.)

  9. I’m supposed to have my first child in four weeks (or so) and was just thinking this morning about hand sanitizers. I was remembering reading something about how they were an essential element of a changing table setup, and thought, “How on earth did my brother and I survive getting our diapers changed?” Because, of course, these products didn’t exist.

    What did exist was soap and water, and I’m planning to use that to clean up when I change the baby.

    Now, if there is some specific reason why my baby needs extra sanitation care, that would be a different situation. But right now I have no reason to expect that, so I’m not going to worry about it.

  10. Purell is great for dissolving sticky goo that liquid alcohol runs off of–I use it to clean up the boric acid goo that sometimes leaks out of the ant baits we use in our home. I rarely put it on my hands, though!

  11. I have a friend with an immunosuppressed daughter (multi-organ transplant). Her class at school instituted a clean-hands, clean-surfaces policy. If a kid wipes his nose, the aid bring him Purell. When the kids go out for recess or lunch, the tables and chair backs, door handles, and faucets get wiped down with a bleach wipe or lysol. And the kids each wash their hands upon re-entering the classroom after being out and about (art, gym, music, lunch, recess, whatever). Illness and absenteeism in that class is HUGELY lower than the rest of the school.

    Purell can be part of a common-sense approach to disease prevention, but it will not take care of the problem all by itself.

  12. I agree! I think most people over-sanitize causing their children’s immune systems to be lulled into inactivity. My kids are almost never sick because they are exposed to germs and bacteria every day. Their bodies know how to handle and fight them.

  13. This is something I’d long suspected.

    Seriously, people, human beings have been around long before the advent of soap or antibacterial hand sanitizers. We managed to survive 150,000 years without them, and many people in the world still do.

    Put me in the camp of those with sensitive skin, that over-washing or over use of hand sanitizer irritates, and I don’t get sick any more frequently than any of my friends or co-workers. In fact, when I do get sick, I usually recover much quicker.

    There is a time and a place for stuff like Purell, like Liz said, but we don’t need to wipe down every single surface of the shopping cart before we let our child touch it. (Because, you know, nobody has, say sneezed on the goods that you are then going to put in the carefully sanitized shopping cart with your child.)

    Our bodies know how to handle germs. Really. We would have died out long ago if they didn’t.

  14. Glad there is research to back up what I have suspected all along. This is a marketing ploy. Wash a decent amount with soap and water and get on with life. Our bodies produce antibodies to fight germs. The system works leave it a lone.

  15. Already knowing that the overuse of sanitizers may be creating resistant bugs and are only for surfaces and not airborne made me question the flu advice to constantly use it. This news goes back at least 10 years.
    Some people are clean obsessed, I have a picture of my old landlord vacuuming the gas station parking lot where she worked.

  16. It’s so gratifying when the research backs up what you already think. The only time I use hand sanitizer is after I pump gas. I know even that is probably OCD of me, but I can’t help it.

  17. After I helped my niece wash her hands at the zoo – I was stopped by several staff members and a nurse because of the chemical burn on my hands. The soap was so strong the it burned my skin.

    I carry a small container of a liquid oatmeal soap to wash hands because of this incident.

    I remember as a kid physically fighting off a field trip chaperone who was trying to force me to use a soap I was allergic to.

    Those of you who have children that react badly to public bathroom soaps – get a note from the doctor on letterhead or an Rx pad that says the children must not use the soap. It should be good for 1 year. You probably can’t 504 this unless there are related medical issues that directly effect learning and you can sneak this under the radar.

  18. I find it handy in a pinch when I’ve changed a dirty diaper and don’t have access to a sink. Human history has readily shown what poo can do to you. That being said, even before having kids, I refused to buy “anti-bacterial” soap on the basis that plain old soap is, um, pretty much anti-bacterial.

  19. Hand sanitizer is handy (pardon the pun) if you need to use a public bathroom that would probably give you more germs when you wash. I don’t mean every public bathroom, but I am sure everyone at one time or another has been in a bathroom that just icks you out.

    But America is the land of the extremes and most people who have this stuff use it too much.

  20. Hi Lenore, prompted me to write a response on a few other health paradoxes that have caught my eye over the years.

  21. I used to be one of those people who rolled my eyes whenever I saw a mother running her child’s hands in Purell. And then I ended up with a very nasty disease and was required to take medication that made me immunosuppressed. Now I wash my hands obsessively and practically bath myself and my daughter in sanitizer whenever we are in public.

    Next time you see someone using Purell, try not to be judgmental. They might have a whole lot more going on in their lives than you can even begin to imagine.

    Also, I am all for good science reporting so it should be noted that the blurb about this study is very misleading. While it is true that the study found no decrease in the transmission of respiratory illnesses, it did find that the use of sanitizer “reduced absenteeism caused by gastrointestinal illness” and recommended that “Schools should consider adopting these practices to reduce days lost to common illnesses.” The title of this post should perhaps be the less sensational, “Purell doesn’t work in all cases.”

    Read the original study here:

  22. I’m so glad to hear this. Those Purell monsters make me sick. Literally. Bacteria have been on this planet for millions of billions of years, and all we’re doing is speeding up their natural selection. I’ve also personally doubted it’s effectiveness at REALLY cleaning your hands. It just seems like shoving dirt and germs around to me.

  23. @Shannon – did it reduce absenteeism by fooling kids into thinking they can’t fake the difficult to prove “tummy ache” therefore fewer kids used the excuse to avoid tests?

  24. hmmm….this is TERRIBLE news
    i have a bad case of OCD….and because i have only hand sanitizer to rely on…thats bad news
    i cant wash my hand with water and sope in school all the time…so ya

  25. Purell and similar products don’t replace a good hand washing but it does have some benefit when used alongside good sanitary habits, which is why it’s used effectively in hospitals. The problem is that kids don’t have good sanitary habits.

    Also, it does not encourage supergerms as it does not contain antibiotics—yes avoid antibiotic soap! Purell however is just gelled alcohol.

  26. I HATE Purell with a passion! Just plain old hand washing is best. That said, I did allow my preschooler to use hand sanitizer at school only this Winter. Always given by the teachers to control amount, and we all know how much prescoolers put their hands everywhere. I won’t allow it in my home. And I just found out that my 1st grader was using it at school and I have to send in a note for them not to let her use it anymore. She has severely dry skin and her hands had cracks all over them, from all the alcohol in it.

  27. Well, actually, since you do need to breathe in order to catch a lot of infections, and Purell suppresses my breathing (along similar compounds, like straight rubbing alcohol), I suppose it could help. Oh wait, I need to breathe. For life and stuff.

    Seriously, crumb-tastic allergy.

  28. I rarely make my kids wash their hands. Bad mommy.


    Just as a note, Purell doesn’t lead to super bugs… it’s like bleach, a biocide. Any antibiotic, like in hand soap, will help make super bugs though. Just a different mode of action.

  30. I’ve used hand sanitizer in the last few years less times than I have fingers. I haven’t owned any in years and before that i used it very very infrequently and hardly ever with the kids. It’s kinda gross. I actively avoid antibacterial anything and discourage my kids from using it. When we are in a public bathroom if they only have soap labeled anti bacterial then I have them just use water. I don’t make the kids wash their hands unless they look dirty or I just saw them doing something like playing in the toilet of they were emptying the liter box. We spend a lot of time at public parks and out and about. the kids frequently get questionable things on their hands. I keep baby wipes handy for cleaning sticky, mystery and just plain dirty things off of them. Overall I don’t worry about bad germs. I worry more about killing off the good ones with overly protective measures.

  31. THANK YOU!!!!! this super clean freak movement is insane. I have had 6 little kids and the only times they have to wash their hands is when they look dirty, or it’s time to eat. and after the bathroom of course. my wife and I have always been of the opinion that kids need to get dirty. Our oldest is 19 and our experiment seems to be working, our kids have been sick FAR less than most kids they are around. we live on a ranch and our little girls can get filthy in short order, but they are happy and very rarely sick. I myself boycott hand sanitizer, it’s disgusting sticky goo!!! makes me sick to touch it.. It is like crack for worry wart, helicopter moms.

  32. Shannon said…Next time you see someone using Purell, try not to be judgmental. They might have a whole lot more going on in their lives than you can even begin to imagine.

    I whole heartedly agree. My 14 month old son who was born premature, he has a trach and ventilator, and also a feeding tube. He spent the first 9 months of his life in a hospital. Since his breathing is done through a “closed system” (bottled oxygen to the ventilator through a tube directly into his lungs.) germs travelling through the air seldom make him sick.

    But germs on surfaces, that earlier commenters have dismissed, can easily and quickly put him back into the hospital. If I touch a dirty surface and then touch the end of his feeding tube while hooking it up or touch the suction catheter while clearing out his airway those germs can cause us major issues. I use hand santizers too often to count. There is a very large purell dispenser at the front door of my house and at least one more bottle in every other room. If you want to visit my son and or touch him in any way you will use said purell. If you do not want to use it, that’s fine, you can check out the photos of my boy that are posted on the internet because you aren’t coming into our house.

    A few years ago I would have agreed with the comments about kids needing to get dirty to build their immune systems. I still do believe that but to all of you who simply dismiss the effectiveness of hand sanitizers because your kid doesn’t get sick that often or because the flu can be caught through the air, please know that not everyone is as lucky as you are and that just like any tool or product or medicine it may have benefits to people in different situations.

  33. I don’t have running water. We use hand sanitizer after we go to the bathroom or touch raw food. That’s it. Otherwise everyone is dirty.

  34. I’ve noticed the kids who get the most respiratory infections are the kids whose parents smoke. These parents never seem to realize it’s not the weather, the temperature in school or how often their kids wash their hands – it’s the second hand smoke they inhale every day that’s really making them sick.

  35. Hmm … how about a happy medium? I find the little containers very handy and keep them in my various bags. If we are running around and the kids are about to eat a snack, we use it to clean their hands off before they eat. At home, of course, they wash their hands after using the bathroom and before dinner. I am also a teacher, and I keep a container of hand sanitzer on my desk that students can use if they wish. Can people be obsessive about using it? Of course -just like excessive handwashing is a classic OCD symptom. But is it a useful tool when used appropriately? Yes.

  36. Last year my son had bacterial meningitis and almost died. When he got out of the hospital, he still had 3 weeks of IV antibiotics that had to be given to him, through a picc line, every 4 hours. You’d better believe I used hand sanitizer before getting his IV ready. At 3 in the morning, groggy and stressed, hand sanitizer was best way to kill any germs that might be on my hands before giving my very sick son who I love more than life itself his life saving medications. Also also kept alcohol swabs and swabbed the syringes before every use, and I swabbed the tubes as well. Hand sanitizer was my friend.

    My family goes camping a lot. We also eat at restaurants. Sometimes it is just easier to use the hand sanitizer while camping or at a restaurant than it is to find a place with running water.

  37. OK, given the fact that there are people out there with suppressed immune systems who really need to use this stuff, I don’t make judgements in individual cases when I see strangers slapping the stuff all over their kids. It’s true that we DON’T know what’s going on in most cases.

    I don’t feel bad about saying that the over-use by the general public is ridiculous, though. Excepting individual cases where use of alcohol-based sanitizers is absolutely necessary, way too many people think this is going to keep their kids healthy- even, in some cases, using Purell INSTEAD OF hand-washing, and not just in very dirty bathrooms. I don’t think “You idiot!” when I see someone using the stuff, but I DO think we as a species are idiots for letting advertising-based paranoia (I’m looking at you, Lysol!) run our lives. Does that make sense?

    It’s like that “Keep your grubby hands off, your germs are freakin’ nasty” signs for baby carriers: absolutely necessary in some cases, but so overused by the general population that we end up assuming that people using it are just being stupid/paranoid/helicopter-y. It’s not fair to the people who need the products, but it sure works great for whoever’s selling the products!

  38. Uh, the flu is a virus. Santizer is anti-bacterial. Bacteria and viruses are two different things. Viruses are not killed by Purell.

    How about feeding your children more vegetables and less sugar, to promote a healthier immune system? How about teaching children how to blow their noses and cover their mouths when they cough/sneeze, and wash their hands after doing both? They’re able to do it, even 3-year olds (trust me, I work with them).

  39. LOL!! I saw this in my local paper and all I could think was “wow, yet another area where I was ahead of my time”. I’ll admit to keeping a small bottle of Purell in my diaper bag for when I had to do a messy change at the park and had no way to properly wash my hands, and I have used it on the kids once or twice, but overall I’ve flat out refused to use the stuff and won’t allow my children to either. Why, the shock on the face of the speech therapist at the children’s hospital when I wouldn’t touch the stuff on the way into her office!! I had to refuse quite strongly even after stating that we had both just thoroughly washed our hands. Soap and water are proven and are easier on the skin and as at least one other person (I haven’t read them all yet) above me has said, the best defence against illness is proper sleep, nutrition and exercise.

  40. I have to wash my hands often at work, because I’m a chemist and work in a lab. I never bother with hand sanitizers because I need real water and soap. And I don’t bother with anti-bacterial soap anymore either. It won’t kill viruses anyway, and regular soap is just as effective at getting rid of bacteria. Plus, anti-bacterial soap may contribute to drug-resistant bacteria.

  41. @Eric, I understand where you’re coming from with regards to protecting your son from germs but the point you seem to be missing is that good old soap and water, when used properly, are at least as good as Purell at removing germs. In your position I would absolutely insist on proper and frequent hand washing but that’s as far as I would go.

  42. I use Purell when I’m on the road and don’t have access to soap and water. It’s not a substitute, but can hold off germs until you get to soap and water.

  43. Purell has its purpose(s). It’s the advertising and the obsessiveness of our culture that make it an issue. The implication that you’re a better mom if you use Purell “just in case,” and worse, the fact that parents can be influenced by people making such implications, are really a shame.

  44. Check this out: FDA Warns Consumers in Puerto Rico of Harmful Bacteria in Hand Sanitizers

  45. […] Guess What? Purell Doesn’t Work Hi Readers:  Time to quit pickling our kids in Purell. That’s not just MY conclusion, or even just the […] […]

  46. I definitely don’t douse my kids or myself in it, but it comes in handy when I don’t have access to anything else. And normally I have baby wipes with me when I’m out and about, anyway. They seem to have worked just fine so far, for me and my 18-month-old twins.

  47. @gail I see your point and if you were to see just how often I would need to wash my hands you would understand why hand sanitizer is a useful and helpful tool in the arsenal. The point I was trying to make is that the headline “Guess What? Purell doesn’t work’ is misleading and actually just plain wrong. Aside from the fact that My family spent so much time in a hospital I also work in a hospital and hand sanitizers are more common there than soup and water. They are a useful tool for doctors and nurses going in and out of room after room. Comment after comment on this thread is about how bad it is to use such products.

    I am not saying that it is always the best option or that it is better than soap and water (which it is not) but it is not just a plot to make money nor a danger to us all that will cause superbugs to run rampant. Just one more tool to help us and our kids to stay clean.

  48. I wonder if this should become the Free-Range Kids anthem?

  49. Our school district does not allow most hand sanitizers because of their alcohol content. (I think it’s actually related to a flamability issue, not a worry that the kids will try to drink it.) This may not be the most logical policy, but at least I can now share with people the fact that the hand sanitizers probably wouldn’t give a great deal of benefit.

    My son, who is a terrible hand washer, eats food off the ground, and is basically very unhygienic, refused to shake our church deacon’s hand today because he “would get germs.” How embarrassing.

  50. Another good one. Short, but good.

    And, another textbook case of “how ever did we survive our childhoods without this?”.
    Somebody is relying on us not having very long memories…

  51. […] not to trust in Purell too much; it kills the good germs with the bad and now it turns out that most flu’s are passed through air germs and not physical contact anyways. Based on that fact-let, maybe the physician/drywaller’s […]

  52. Purell is great for dissolving sticky goo that liquid alcohol runs off of–I use it to clean up the boric acid goo that sometimes leaks out of the ant baits we use in our home. I rarely put it on my hands, though!

  53. […] | Snoskred – Life in the Country mental_floss Blog » Suspicious Checkout Line Combinations Guess What? Purell Doesn’t Work « FreeRangeKids Sacramento ! Knowing Everything. […]

  54. I’m sorry but this is an absolutely terrible argument. Every single one of your points can be refuted. First, who cares if there are other ways to catch bacteria via air. That’s completely irrelavent. It’s like saying that purell doesn’t work because people can get sick through kissing. It just doesn’t relate. Also, just because kids touch their face every 3 minutes, that doesn’t mean that they are touching other things. If they were touching door knobs every 3 minutes and then their faces, thrn that would be different. Now I can see that you might have some basis against any kind of hand cleaning, but if you are by any chance arguing for hand washing then you have made zero points because basically you are saying that han washing is just as bad as purell with the points that you have made. And one last thing, if anything, according to you, onsessive hygiene would be the only solution considering the 20 times purell in an hour thing. There are definitely some strong cases inthe world against hand sanitizer, but this is not one of them.

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