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The Pointless Cult of Hand Sanitizer

Last week, the Miami Marlins commemorated the team’s $1.2 billion sale with a tweet that showed one of its new owners hard at work in the front office. It was Yankees legend Derek Jeter, harbinger of “a new era,” enviably flush with iPads.

While many questioned the choice of twin tablets over an actual computer, others were drawn to the room’s other obtrusive fixture: a hand sanitizer dispenser looming over Jeter’s desk. After some intrepid reporting, SB Nation’s Charlotte Wilder determined that the device was likely custom-made and pricey, but couldn’t explain the reason for its existence: “I don’t know why anyone would pay close to $500 for one of these ugly stands when you can literally just buy a bottle of Purell at the corner store — or have your assistant buy it for you — for, like, two bucks,” she wrote.

I can think of just one possible answer: The hand sanitizer isn’t for Jeter. Or, at least, it isn’t just for him. Putting the large, imposingly chrome sanitizer station right where you’ll be glad-handing with other executives and potential business partners sends the message that it is they, the supplicants, who must disinfect before contact. Only, would it be best to do it after? Is that rude? Maybe both prior to and following the handshake? Is that excessive? Don’t fuck up, because Jeter is going to judge the whole interaction on this.

Regardless, he’s always going to have the upper hand — that’s what hand sanitizer has come to represent, despite its many established shortcomings: It’s not all that effective for cleaning your kids’ grubby hands after they’ve been playing outside (just as it’s no help to farmers or others working with harmful chemicals); it appears to have little effect on certain germs; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still say washing your hands with soap and water is “the best way to reduce the number of microbes on them in most situations.”

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration has been trying to plug “data gaps” where the efficacy and necessity of hand sanitizer is concerned, noting that “consumers are using antiseptic rubs more frequently at home, work, school and in other public settings where the risk of infection is relatively low.”

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Still, because alcohol-based sanitizer is portable and easy to use — and ubiquitous in hospitals — people cling to a mystical belief in its powers and the addictive ritual of slathering it on. No surprise that antimicrobial gels and foams first made available the general consumer in the 1990s would appear to us as some great innovation in hygiene when, in fact, alcohol has been used as a disinfectant since at least the 14th century. But are we so blind to the disposable novelty of a mostly inferior hand-washing substitute—one that both teens and troubled adults have taken to drinking for its intoxicant effects—that we cannot see we are being bamboozled? Well, maybe. Sure!

If we are that hopeless when it comes to understanding our health, however, it’s because hand sanitizer plays on a distinct, desperate, modern fear of contamination. Even Purell’s reassuring packaging conditions us to think we are never really clean: It kills “the most” germs, which is to say “99.9%” or sometimes “99.99%” — the decimal confirming eradication of a threat just up to the theoretical limit and no further, with space for the tiniest of invasions. A second squirt to be on the safe side, then. A third.

And I think, as I often do, of our germaphobe-in-chief, Donald Trump, who must burn through Purell by the case on the taxpayers’ dime. While hardly the first demented old man of wealth to demonstrate an extreme aversion to microbes, he does currently hold a job that requires plenty of contact with the masses, shaking an estimated 65,000 hands annually in what he has called a “barbaric” social convention. ((Barack Obama remarked that “Always use hand sanitizer” had been among George W. Bush’s best pieces of advice.)

While I can’t prove it, I’d bet if you asked him, Trump would say that hand sanitizer is better, smarter than washing your hands — it’s a product, after all, with marketing that explains the appeal, vastly preferable to the received common wisdom that one ought to rinse and soap up after using the toilet. Does he keep the White House bathrooms stocked with pump bottles of his favorite brand? He must.

That’s not to belittle Trump, Jeter and other busy, well-connected celebrities and politicians for taking basic precautions with their health. I’d rather let them know, instead, that they (and certain helicopter parents) can stop making such a big goddamn deal out of manual interaction with the world and other people in it. The substance they’re all hooked on is about two rungs up from a placebo, and an obsession with its allegedly purifying essence doesn’t impress anyone.

Truth be told, hand sanitizer zealotry gives one the look of a reptilian overlord deathly afraid to expose his or her body to the earthly scum the rest of us have to touch and transmit as a matter of course on the subway ride home. It’s a dirty universe, man. You’re never gonna wipe it all off.