The risk of encountering infections outside the home is also key, so it is handy to have something that we can pack in a handbag or pocket. Fortunately there are some good options there too. The most potent quick acting disinfectant is simply alcohol mixed with a little water. The water is important – it improves the performance of the alcohol. Microbiologists have known about and used the anti-microbial properties of alcohol for a long time in their labs. It really works. Similar solvents like isopropanol work too, but alcohol is pretty much ideal for the job. It’s basically all you need to sterilise a work surface before beginning your experiments.
It works pretty well on the skin too. Apply it and any germs on the skin will be quickly dealt with – the acute disruption caused by being flooded with an aggressive solvent is something that very few microbes can cope with. It does however only have a short term effect, and the doesn’t give any protection against future infection. So there is something to be said for including some extra ingredient that is going to hang around a bit longer. This has to be something fairly mild – you don’t want or need to be a walking operating theatre. Something mild like triclosan would fit the bill. But natural antibacterial agents like tea tree oil and witch hazel are very good options. They don’t pack the punch of a modern antibiotic, but they are up to making your skin a bit less inviting.
Sprays are handy because you can use them both on your skin and on surfaces like door handles. The alcohol rapidly evapourates so it’s very convenient. Gels are probably a better way of keeping your hands clear. Alcohol is of course not tremendously good for the skin, so it is best not to overdo it. Applying a small amount regularly is likely to be the best way of keeping your skin clean without drying it out. A bit of glycerin in a gel will mitigate the harmful effects somewhat, but won’t stop the product having a bit of a drying effect.
Alcohohl free sanitisers are useful too, especially if you have particularly sensitive skin. These rely on antibacterial agents such benzalkonium chloride and triclosan. They don’t work as well as soap or alcohol but are definitely better than nothing, and might be the only option is your skin just can’t take the drying effects of soap and alcohol.
Keeping your hands clean isn’t the only way of preventing the spread of viruses, but it is certainly not an insignificant contribution to keeping you and people around you safe.
I’ve done a post for people in the business on the implications of the current situation for the hand sanitiser sector.