If it hasn’t already been hammered into your head during your time on Planet Coronavirus, we need to keep our hands clean. Even the least germaphobic types have probably tripled their hand washing, a habit most of us will be taking with us long after the pandemic has subsided (or, sadly, probably not). Though hand sanitizer isn’t the preferred method of bacteria and virus removal, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that it’s a necessary backup for the time being. If we can’t wash our hands, we douse ourselves in minimum 60 percent alcohol. So, naturally, most of us have developed a steady hand-sanitizer habit, too.
But when this is all over, should you keep that up?
For the hand washing, yes. Hand sanitizer, not so much.
Each kills germs, but in fundamentally different ways, and these differences are ultimately a matter of global health.
Washing our hands is like cremating a body, while hand sanitizer is like embalming a body. Or, more accurately, washing our hands is like burning someone to death, while hand sanitizer is like poisoning someone. Now imagine if, over time, people become resistant to the poison and/or embalming process and remain half alive, potentially even regenerating and repopulating. We’re fucked now, huh?
That’s basically what hand sanitizer is capable of — eventually, some microbes that were previously killed by hand sanitizer are no longer completely obliterated. These microbes can then multiply, producing more, stronger microbes. This is risky not just because they’re harder to kill with alcohol, but because these stronger microbes could potentially be resistant to the antibiotics used to treat the infections they can cause. This scenario is thought to be what led to the development of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a difficult-to-treat bacterial infection that previously only occurred in sterile health-care environments.
Hand washing isn’t a threat to antibiotic resistance in the same way because washing our hands with soap and water physically destroys and removes microbes from our hands. Per Harvard Medical Publishing, “Soap and water don’t kill germs; they work by mechanically removing them from your hands. Running water by itself does a pretty good job of germ removal, but soap increases the overall effectiveness by pulling unwanted material off the skin and into the water.”
The fact that we can’t always wash our hands constantly helps with this, too (do you keep a bucket of water and a bar of soap on your person at all times?). Hand sanitizer, however, can be plopped on at any occasion. Because of this, it’s much easier to overdo it. (You could, hypothetically, overdo it on hand washing, as well, but it’s more of a challenge.)
All of which is to say, we actually want some bacteria on our hands. Millions can live on our hands at any given time, most of which are beneficial to our overall health. The bacteria on our hands translates to the bacteria in our guts, which we want to be diverse. If our body isn’t exposed to a plethora of bacteria, it becomes less equipped to handle new bacteria. That is, you’re more likely to become sick, because you have fewer bodily resources to fight it.
Why then, do we wash our hands at all?
Poop is a huge source of different ailments, from diarrhea to COVID-19. Fortunately, we’re usually able to keep our poop exposure relegated to the bathroom, but while we’re in there, we’re probably touching some invisible poop. If we left without washing our hands, we could risk ingesting that poop by touching our faces or spreading that poop to someone else. Hand washing is the preferred method of germ removal not only because it reduces the risk of antibiotic resistance, but because it does a better job of cleaning. Soap can cut through grease, dirt and other nasties in ways that hand sanitizer can’t.
As for our current situation, the benefits of killing germs with hand sanitizer outweigh the risks of antibiotic resistance. But as the coronavirus hopefully teeters off, we might want to wean ourselves off our practice of squirting some hand sanitizer into our palms every time we touch a surface outside the home. Otherwise, we might end up with a new antibiotic-resistant problem, and not enough gut bacteria to fight it.