Mythbusting H1N1: Hand sanitizer

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Today’s H1N1 mythbuster is one that’s been circulating around the News Cut Cubicle over the last day or so:


Hand sanitizer can make germs and bacteria more “super” and using it in the long run can hurt you.

True or False?

False, according to Dr. Mike Osterholm, who appeared on MPR’s Midday and got a similar question from a caller. Osterholm, an expert on the flu, says he’s not sure using hand sanitizer is reducing your risk of contracting H1N1, but it’s helping with a lot of other things:


We often think about antibiotics that we take and because the viruses can mutate when they are exposed to these kinds of things, we get resistance; some of them that are growing in your body develop through mutation, a way to get around the antibiotic and they become the prevalent one.

What we’re killing these bugs with is alcohol, which is like boiling. You don’t get resistance. So we’re not worried about breeding superbugs by using alcohol-based handrubs. That’s a good thing. Don’t worry about that.

Not only does that kill a great deal of the microbial life on your hands — viruses and bacteria — but in Minnesota we all know that in Minnesota, hands become more chapped. Hangnails become more common. It turns out that some of the bad bugs actually do much better on our hands and actually survive quite well when our hands are under challenge of the elements.

What happens with these alcohol-based handrubs, they not only have alcohol in them, they have emollients in it. And it turns out, we have shown in studies in health care studies, we can greatly reduce the burden of bad bugs on your hands by using these hand gels routinely. You can’t use them too much.

One interesting point: Osterholm says that hands play a much less role in the transmission of the flu than previously thought.


Today, I would never tell someone to scrub down a workplace if someone had influenza there. Schools needlessly are scrubbing themselves down after cases of influenza there; that’s not where the transmission is occurring.

So the key message is I’m not sure how much all this hand hygiene is really doing to reduce flu transmission, but it’s sure good for a lot of other things.

Keep in mind, however, that some research a few years ago found that if the hand gel isn’t at least 60-percent alcohol, it won’t be very effective. Think about that before you give some to your kids:

Here’s the entire show:

  • Jim!!!

    And perhaps a new and lucrative market for corn ethanol.