Not long ago I wrote an article for this very publication on hand protection. It’s still a worthy article in its own right, but in the light of the pandemic we need to pay attention to the safety of our hands, and wouldn’t you just know it, some of the very things that we have been doing to protect our hands might actually be putting us in danger.
Let’s take a quick look at what the WHO – the World Health Organization, that is, not the band – recommend as one of the best ways to avoid contracting COVID-19. I can’t say for certain if any of the surviving members of the band ‘The Who’ might have anything to add to the warnings: if any members of the band are reading this, please contact me. If for no other reason than to catch up; I’m in quarantine and practicing social isolation, so am desperate for social interaction.
I digress, but I’m sure we all recall the key advice at this point: wash your hands frequently. Regularly and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, or if you do not have access to these, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
Why? Washing your hands with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand rub kills viruses that may be on your hands.”1
That’s all well and good, but seriously, how many of you had to be told to wash your hands? Like many things in life, few people have ever received training in how to properly wash their hands, and with no offense meant to either the WHO, or The Who for that matter, the above advice is immensely flawed. To protect yourself from germs, bacteria, and viruses (all of which can cause you to become seriously ill or even dead) you have to do more than regularly and thoroughly clean your hands.
No substitute for soap and water
Hand sanitiser is not a sufficient substitute for soap and water. The best way to clean your hands is to use hot, soapy (ideally an antibacterial soap) clean water for at least 20 seconds. There are many people who will suggest you sing a song that lasts about 20 seconds, but realistically if you do a thorough and proper job of washing your hands – cleaning underneath your fingernails, removing rings, scrubbing all surfaces of your hands with soap from the wrist down applying soap to all areas and then rinsing them – you will likely take longer than 20 seconds and won’t have people giving you funny looks for singing in the bathroom.
Yet sadly, water – especially hot water – isn’t always available. I always run the water until it gets hot before I begin washing my hands and it is usually just a tad more than inconvenient. I once spent 45 minutes in the men’s restroom of a petrol station waiting for the water to get hot until the manager threatened to call the police. The manager was unswayed by my protestations over the lack of hot water and insinuated that I was some sort of deviant, which, by the by, I am not. Fortunately, I had a small bottle of hand sanitiser.
It’s not just grubby restaurants and dubious petrol stations that lack hot water, many modern facilities are equipped with automated fixtures where both soap and water (in the name of saving the planet, but I think we can agree that it is probably more about saving money) are dispensed by the use of motion sensor technology to dribble a small amount of cold water onto your barely soapy hands. Trust me when I tell you that this water will never get hot enough to do any good, and repeated attempts to activate the motion will only make you look like a cat slapping its paws playfully at said dribble of water. So little water is dispensed you’d be better off having someone spit on them… but don’t – it’s unsanitary and violates social norms. But what are we really left with? Especially when what little water ultimately dispensed is also cold. In some of the dirtiest places in the world the best they can do is give you a spritz of cold water.
Hand sanitisers are liquids, gels, or foams that contain 60-90% isopropyl alcohol. There are also products on the market that are sold as hand sanitisers, many of which do not contain the requisite 60% or more alcohol and so are ineffective in killing these microorganisms and unable to protect you from becoming ill. Use hand sanitiser only in the absence of a good source of hot water and remember it is used to kill the microorganisms that can make you ill so be sure to use a sufficient amount to cover the entire surface of your hand from the wrist down. As soon as hot water and antibacterial soap becomes available wash your hands thoroughly.
Dangers of over washing
Your skin secretes oils to keep your skin moist and to protect it from cracking or even drying to the point where the skin dies. Cracking or peeling skin can create a portal through which the microbial bad guys can get into your bloodstream. So while washing your hands is a good health and hygiene practice, too much of a good thing could actually harm you. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be following the WHO’s advice, but be sure to moisturise your hands after washing.
I use hand sanitiser often, especially when I travel. Hotels, airports, and especially planes, are in my mind filthy places filled with invisible organisms all queueing up to make me sick. I’m so germ-phobic that I practically turn into the late Howard Hughes (famous billionaire and germaphobe) I can use an entire 28ml bottle of hand sanitiser on a three-hour flight, so when I say that this stuff can really dry out your hands it’s a lesson learnt first-hand.
There are other dangers to hand sanitisers that are less obvious. I once mistook a bottle of hand sanitiser for mouthwash and ended up poisoning myself. To make matters worse, I called the only number I could find for poison control as per the directions for accidental ingestion printed on the label, only to reach the number for the deaf. The woman who answered asked if I was deaf, which seemed like a pretty stupid question since I was clearly able to hear her. When I told her I was not deaf she told me that I had to hang up and call another number. I told her that since I had been poisoned that maybe she could make an exception in this case. She did and I lived to write this article. The lesson is you can’t protect your hands if you are dead and since drinking hand sanitiser will kill you, don’t drink hand sanitiser.
Anyway, back to the dangers of over washing/overusing hand sanitisers. As indicated, trying to keep your hands absolutely free of all the tiny, invisible organisms that can make you ill can harm your hands by allowing microorganisms into your bloodstream.
Homemade hand sanitiser
Many people, desperate for the now needlessly scarce hand sanitiser, are turning to making their own; don’t do this. Most of the ingredients in homemade sanitiser are much harsher than the hand sanitiser that is commercially available. Homemade hand sanitiser is likely to do more harm than good and may in itself end up poisoning you by making an entrance to your bloodstream through your pores.
Some people have taken to wearing gloves to avoid contracting Covid-19, but unfortunately, as much as people feel a burning need to do something to protect themselves, disposable gloves aren’t the answer.
According to Deutsche Welle in the article “Disposable Gloves May Feel Safe, but Don’t Be Deceived”2 in Ecowatch: “Although disposable gloves are worn in doctors’ surgeries and by paramedics, they protect the hands only from coarse contamination, such as blood or other bodily fluids. They can protect against contamination with bacteria and viruses only for a very short time.
“This is because the material of disposable gloves is actually porous, and the longer you wear them the easier it is for pathogens to penetrate the supposedly protective cover. This is one of the reasons why medical personnel carefully clean and disinfect their hands after using disposable gloves. Disposable gloves expressly do not replace these hygiene rules.”
In effect, far from protecting you from Covid-19 (and remember there are many other bacteria, germs, and viruses that can be equally harmful) if you are exposed to smears on surfaces then disposable gloves just pick up these microbial interlopers and you increase the duration of your exposure; it’s a stupid idea so don’t do that either.
Kill all bacteria?
Contrary to what the logic of eliminating viruses may dictate, killing all bacteria isn’t the answer. Our skin is host to many good bacteria and so just blithely killing bacteria isn’t a good option. Nutri-Dermatologist Doctor Bucci defends these helpful bacteria, in an article for Comfort Zone, a website devoted to the science of skin care; The Good Bacteria That Protect Our Skin3 “The human body hosts microorganisms that coexist with our organism without damaging it, and some of these are ‘good bacteria’. This set of microorganisms is called microbiota. Even our skin hosts various communities of bacteria, more than 500 species. These microorganisms represent the skin microbiota, a precious system of protection that contributes to our immune defences. The new cosmetic frontier is the research of solutions that protect and reinforce the skin microbiota and its community of good bacteria, to keep healthy skin in balance, in particular, for sensitive and hyper-responsive skin.
The beauty of our skin is closely linked to the balance of the microorganisms that populate it, which are the first line of defense from external threats. When the bacterial ecosystem is balanced and differentiated, the skin remains healthy. A low diversification in the bacterial ecosystem, caused by external and internal factors, can erase cutaneous reactivity and sensitivity, and even provoke pathological conditions (dermatitis, acne, rosacea, etc.) The cutaneous microbiota stimulates the immune system, activating the natural physiological response and the regulation of our biofilm that stops the colonisation of harmful agents. The ecosystem of our “good bacteria” is influenced by imbalances that are particularly linked to lifestyle, anxiety, and stress conditions that can alter the natural skin defences.”
Caring for your hands
The first indication that you have been overwashing your hands is dry skin. Dry skin needs to be treated to prevent it from drying and forming cracks or open sores, and remember – these portals into your bloodstream don’t have to be very big. So rather than examining your hands with a magnifying glass remember to moisturise your hands, as frequently and with as much concern as you wash them.
Moisturise your hands
The living and mouth-breathing proof that you will never go broke overestimating people’s stupidity comes from the shortages that emerge in a time of panic and crises. In my hometown not only are people hoarding hand sanitiser, masks, and medical supplies, but also toilet paper, soap, and water for no rational reason. I tell people to try to be kind to people who are hoarding toilet tissue and soap because it is often their first exposure to these items and they aren’t certain of the proper procedure and amount needed in the use of these items. One thing that is also inexplicably short in supply is moisturiser. Many men are reluctant to use the heavily perfumed commercial moisturisers, but here is an area where you can make your own from natural ingredients that are not in short supply, and won’t have you smelling like a flower shop or a candy store.
Aloe vera gel
Aloe has been used for centuries for medical purposes and is very effective in healing dry or damaged skin. Unfortunately, many people already know about the benefits of Aloe so it may be difficult to readily obtain.
Despite the benefits of cocoa butter for skin care people often forget that cocoa butter is frequently a main ingredient in suntan lotions and sun block creams. It is added to these lotions to do exactly what you are trying to do: moisturise your skin and protect it from drying out.
Olive oil is widely available and an effective moisturiser. While effective, depending on where you are, it can be a bit expensive, but then again you don’t need a lot, and since you’re not ingesting it you don’t need the finest grade of olive oil.
Almond oil, shea butter, or coconut oil
Now we’re just getting into personal preferences here, so who am I to tell you what you should use? Almond oil, shea butter and coconut oil are all good choices; just remember to use a moisturiser that won’t attract dangerous or disease causing agents.
People throughout the world have been using these natural moisturisers for centuries and the reason they use them is because they work.
Everything is better, wetter.
If all else fails, wash your hands thoroughly to remove the surface grime, and then soak your hands in good old-fashioned clean water. Soak your hands until your skin gets wrinkled and then dry them thoroughly. At this point you can apply the moisturising agent of choice.<