Addicted to the bottle: is our obsession with hand sanitisers doing us more harm than good?

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Over the last decade, sales of hand sanitiser have skyrocketed. But just what’s behind our newfound obsession with keeping our digits clean?

Words: Nicola Down

In a buzzy London restaurant, four friends are sitting down to dinner together for the first time in months. They seem genuinely happy to see each other, but before they’ve had a chance to order a drink – or even say hello – they’re reaching inside their Céline handbags for that little clear bottle. It’s the new working woman’s vice – not vodka, not pills, but hand sanitiser.

And it’s everywhere. People are whipping it out on trains and buses, in cafes and clubs, in friends’ homes and in the street. No desk is complete without a bottle – heck, you can even buy it on Net-a-Porter. Chelsea Clinton tweeted about it in February. Robbie Williams was caught on camera on New Year’s Eve, applying it after joining hands with his audience for a verse of Auld Lang Syne. Even that famous germophobe, Donald Trump, is rumoured to have once handed out bottles of the stuff to a group of reporters.

Be honest, how often are you using? Recent data from Mintel shows that half of us use hand sanitiser, with a third of us buying at least a bottle a month. And according to global market research firm Kline, this addiction is growing: sales are expected to rise by 5% each year. So how did such a niche, neurotic-sounding product become ubiquitous – and socially acceptable?

The first hand sanitiser was invented in 1966 by a nurse called Lupe Hernandez in Bakersfield, California, who realised that alcohol, when delivered through a gel, made for a convenient way to clean hands when there was no access to soap and water. For 30 years, it was the preserve of doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries, before Carex launched a personal product – but even then it didn’t really take off. It was the H1N1 ‘Swine Flu’ outbreak of 2009 that provoked a 71% sales boom. That’s when hand sanitisers migrated from our hospitals to our handbags and transformed into a beauty product along the way. Aesop’s Resurrection Rinse-Free Hand Wash (£7 for 50ml) has become a cult product. Margaret Dabbs London’s Hand Sanitiser (£9 for 30ml) is ‘enriched with Australian emu oil’, while the gilded packaging of Renouve’s Anti-Ageing Hand Sanitiser (£22 for 30ml) looks like a high-end fragrance. You can’t walk into an airport, railway station or garage without seeing rows of little bottles by the till. It’s our germ-fighting version of a martini – anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

But have you ever stopped to ponder just how effective it is? Will it really stop you catching bronchitis from the man hacking up three seats down on the Tube, or is there a whole lot of placebo effect going on? Tests show that not all hand sanitisers actually protect you from germs. Many experts say that unless your product contains 60-80% alcohol, it won’t be effective, but even then, there’s some doubt about their efficacy. A study by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast showed that the gel used in most NHS hospitals stopped working seconds after application. And according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, hand gels won’t protect you from norovirus, or C difficile, or get rid of traces of pesticides or chemicals on the skin. For that, you really just need good old-fashioned soap and water.

The truth about bacteria

Although it might feel like we’re under siege from germs, especially during a brutal commute when you’re lodged under someone’s armpit, in reality, the vast majority are harmless. “Less than 1% of microbes have the potential to do any harm,” says Laura Bowater, professor of microbiology education and engagement at Norwich Medical School. “In fact, bad organisms are far outweighed, both in the environment and in our body, by good ones that help us stay healthy,” she adds, referring to the “hygiene hypothesis” that suggests a lack of childhood exposure to common bacteria could be linked to some autoimmune conditions like allergies and asthma. “The idea is that if your body isn’t exposed to threats when you’re young, it’s not taught how to react and respond, so it becomes more sensitised to any irritant that comes its way,” she explains. And growing numbers of experts are warning that our need to be ‘clean’ – to feel spotless, to take antibiotics at the first sign of a virus – is actually putting our health at risk. According to Dr Martin Blaser, author of new book Missing Microbes, we are heading for an ‘antibiotic winter’, where all our natural defences against disease have been weakened by our pursuit of a germ-free lifestyle.

So why has it become commonplace to have more hand sanitisers rattling around your handbag than Tom Ford lipsticks? Rewind five years and we weren’t nipping to the bathroom to wash our hands after every cough. Now, more than ever, we are creating our own personal bubble, whether it’s walking around with earphones, or reading a tailored newsfeed that reflects back our ideas. Psychologist Dr Emma Short explains, “After constructing that bubble, we need to keep it safe. Other people and things become possible contaminants that we need protection from. We want to sanitise our hands not just against germs, but against the outside world.” In fact, numerous studies show a link between cleaning our hands and feeling better about ourselves. A 2012 study found people felt more optimistic after washing their hands. In a remarkable experiment from 2006, people were asked to think about an example of ‘immoral behaviour’ from their past. Half of the group were then asked to use an antiseptic wipe to clean their hands. This group were found to feel less guilt about their previous indiscretion. They literally washed away their remorse.

There’s also the fact that in today’s economy, more of us feel that we simply cannot afford to be ill. But we aren’t just worried about common colds and stomach bugs. “Highly infectious disease outbreaks and superbugs making headlines around the world, including SARS, Ebola and MRSA, have increased our general fear of bacteria,” says Sir Vince Mitchell, professor of consumer marketing at the Cass Business School in London. “Meanwhile, marketers of hygiene products have done a great job of telling us germs are lurking everywhere. This has essentially made us ‘hygiene hyperconscious’.”

“We’re so vulnerable to marketing,” agrees Short. “If you go into any station chemist, by the till there is always mini hand sanitiser. If you’re anxious about travelling, you’re much more likely to make impulse buys. So, just as panic buying a chocolate bar might make you feel less anxious, so might a bottle of hand sanitiser. But in this century you’re far more likely to encounter hand sanitiser at the till than you are chocolate.”

For growing numbers of us, these little bottles of gel are our comfort, our first line of defence against the stressful, dirty world. And if they make us feel safe, surely there’s no harm? According to Short, overusing your hand gel can potentially be antisocial. “It doesn’t just irritate, it offends people,” she says. “I’ve worked with colleagues who keep hand sanitisers on their desks, and if they’re working with students, they’re sanitising before they’ve left the room. If you’re on the receiving end, having shaken hands with someone who immediately sanitises, it can wound. It’s like saying, ‘you’re dirty, I don’t want to be infected by you’.”

If you’re applying hand sanitiser without thinking, perhaps it’s time to work out why. Although the constant application of sanitiser isn’t in itself a sign of OCD, there’s a chance that irrational fears about germs and contamination could reinforce anxiety, particularly if you’re stressed about other things. “The minute it stops you doing things, you’ve crossed the line,” says Short. “So if you can’t touch things, or it’s difficult for you to walk down the stairs because you don’t want to touch the hand rail as you’ve run out of hand sanitiser, that’s a behaviour controlling you rather than you controlling it.”

Finding a balance

So is it time to lighten up on our addiction to the bottle? “We need to learn to distinguish between what is dangerous (the bacteria in raw chicken) and what isn’t (a pen at the bank)”, says Bowater. And when it is dangerous, just about every major health organisation agrees that soap and water should always be your first port of call. “Just the mechanical act of using soap and warm water, lathering and scrubbing your hands removes most of the debris and germs that we come into contact with on a daily basis,” says Dr Alexis Granite, consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic. This simple act is so powerful at protecting against sickness that experts call it “the DIY-vaccine”.

In reality, hand sanitiser is fairly harmless (although if you worry about buying bottled mineral water, then you might want to think about the environmental cost of bottled gel). It might be useful as an additional layer of support after washing your hands. It might just give you a little reassurance. But if you’re starting to feel like you can’t live without the feeling of that tingly ice-cold gel between your fingers, then it might be time to step away from the bottle.

The five places where bugs lurk

The unexpected spots where unpleasant microbes thrive and survive

1. Your phone

Phones are great for sharing photos – and bacteria. One study found they have 18 times more bacteria than a toilet handle. Use a disinfecting wipe on yours a few times a week.

2. Your desk

According to a 2002 study from the University of Arizona, the average office worker’s desk has hundreds of times more bacteria than the average office toilet seat. Clean your desk regularly and try not to eat lunch hunched over your keyboard.

3. Condiment dispensers

Take a closer look at your restaurant table. Except for the occasional quick swipe of a cloth, when is the last time you imagine the salt and pepper shakers, mustard pots and other shared table accessories were washed?

4. Aeroplane tray tables

You’re 100 times more likely to catch a cold up in the air says a study in the Journal Of Environmental Health Research. But the dirtiest place on the plane is your tray table. Don’t eat food directly from it and keep sanitiser in your hand luggage.

5. The gym

With all that sweat flying around, health clubs are a breeding ground for fungal, viral and bacterial infection. Use a towel as a buffer between your body and the bench, wipe down machines with cleaning solution, and don’t forget your flip-flops for the changing room.

Images: iStock