As if this year’s superflu wasn’t bad enough, now we’ve all got coronavirus to worry about. The disease, also called COVID-19, hasn’t yet hit pandemic status quite yet. But it has reached the U.S., and people want to prepare. That means stocking up: on non-perishable food, on face masks (please, stop), and, of course, on hand sanitizer.
Demand for antibacterial gel like Purell has spiked 1,400% from December 2019 to January 2020, report researchers at marketing and analytics firm Adobe Analytics. It’s so popular, that some stores are even concerned that there could be shortages of hand sanitizer.
But while I was stressing about whether I should duck out of work, run to the nearest drugstore, and see if I could grab a few bottles before it was too late, one of my coworkers posed a question I hadn’t even considered: Does hand sanitizer even work against COVID-19? “After all, isn’t coronavirus a virus?” she asked, blowing my mind. “And isn’t Purell antibacterial?”
I was glad to learn that hand sanitizers do kill viruses as well as bacteria, and they are effective against the bug that’s plaguing the world right now. “Hand sanitizers are active against all types of viruses except norovirus,” says Linda Anegawa, MD, an internist who works with the virtual health platform PlushCare. “While soap and water cleansing is the gold standard for hand hygiene, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective, cheap, and practical as an alternative. It’s far easier and quicker to grab some sanitizer than trying to locate a restroom or sink to wash with soap and water.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention echo this sentiment. Your first choice for cleansing should be soap and water. Scrubbing for at least 20 seconds (that’s about the length of two renditions of “Happy Birthday”) will remove germs, and any dirt or debris that could also contribute to you getting sick. If you don’t have any access a sink, then use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. This will kill infectious microbes like, but it won’t go that extra mile of removing grubbiness.
If you’re going to use a gel, applying it correctly can make sure you’re killing the max amount of germs, says Anegawa. The CDC’s method: Pour plenty of sanitizer in your cupped palm, spread it to cover all surfaces of your hands (don’t forget your nails), and rub until your skin is completely dry. The World Health Organization has a guide with specific, step-by-step instructions illustrating the perfect rubbing technique.
Of course, all that info is useless if your drugstore is sold out. Luckily, Gojo Industries, the company that manufacturers Purell, is reportedly upping its production to keep up with the increased demand. “We have added shifts and have team members working overtime — in accordance with our plans for situations like this,” Samantha Williams, a spokesperson for the company, told The New York Times.
So by all means, grab a bottle or two to keep in your purse and your car. And maybe pick up a hand moisturizer, too, just in case all that washing and sanitizing starts to dry out your skin.
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