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Purell: Friend or Foe?

By August 7, 2008

I love Purell. I carry it with me wherever I go. I “wash” my kids’ hands with it in the absence of a bathroom. Or sometimes just out of pure laziness. But does it work?

Purell is 62% ethanol. Back when I used to work in an infectious disease lab, we sanitized our lab benches with 70% ethanol. We sprayed our latex gloves with it before doing experiments that required sterility. Without having done an actual scientific lab experiment with Purell, I’m guessing that it works reasonably well.

What’s the problem with it then? Well, aside from reports of children getting near fatal alcohol poisoning from consuming globs of it, I wonder if it’s too habit-forming. Washing your hands with soap and water is important not only for getting rid of germs, but also for washing away other toxic products and chemicals you may come in contact with. Purell may kill the germs, but the dirt (and who-knows-what-else) stays. If we get in the habit of thinking that Purell (or other alcohol-based solutions or wipes) can replace hand-washing, we might forget about all the other nasty stuff our hands come in contact with on a daily basis.

Final thought: Use with moderation, but don’t forget the importance of soap and water!

October 13, 2008 at 12:33 pm
(1) Nancy L. says:

This may sound like a silly question, but how good is the average bar of soap at killing germs? Is it basically the same as Purell, except with one you need water and with the other you don’t? Are they active against the same germs? Thanks!

October 13, 2008 at 9:36 pm
(2) Ingrid Koo says:

Soap alone will not kill germs, unless antimicrobial agents are added to it. The use of soap and water mechanically dislodges microbes from your hands, which is why 20 seconds of hand washing, followed by thorough rinsing, is recommended by the CDC. When you use Purell, the alcohol kills the germs by dehydration. Essentially, water gets drawn from the microbes, and this is what kills them.

October 20, 2008 at 3:42 pm
(3) Dr. Bill Vincent says:

Alcohol based hand sanitizers are said to kill 99+ % of germs. It’s that 1 % or so that I worry about as a microbiologist and infection control consultant. The norovirus, which are responsible for so-called “winter diarrhea” are not killed. Parents and teachers depend on these preparations of protect kids from everything. Sorry! That doesn’t happen

October 21, 2008 at 3:41 am
(4) Ingrid Koo says:

A recent study by Belliot et al in the May 2008 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology showed that adding Purell for 30 seconds kills 98.6% of norovirus.

Another study by Lages et al in the February 2008 issue of the Journal of Hospital Infection suggests that Purell may not be effective, but neither was handwashing with antimicrobial soap (containing triclosan).

There may not be a consensus of the effectiveness of Purell in killing norovirus. However, neither of these studies argue in favor of using hand washing over Purell, when strictly speaking about eliminating microbes.

January 8, 2009 at 12:44 pm
(5) Judd says:

Does 70% ethanol not dry out the oil in the skin of your hands? What long term affect does that have?

January 9, 2009 at 2:17 pm
(6) Ingrid Koo says:

Looking at my bottle of Purell, the other ingredients include glycerin and propylene glycol. Glycerin is a component of fat, and propylene glycol is derived from natural gas. Both are found in many soaps and lotions and have moisture-retaining properties. If you’ve ever compared the feeling of Purell with that of ethanol, you’ll notice that Purell feels more slippery, probably because of these added ingredients.

February 10, 2009 at 3:09 pm
(7) Olivier says:

No matter how effective Purell is, it is not intended to replace hand washing with soap and water. Purell will not remove dirt and oils on your skin, where bacterias live and reproduce.

The best thing to do is to first wash your hand with soap and water (and make foam, this is actually what will remove dirt and germs), then complete with ethanol and water (such as Purell’s 62% ethanol).

No matter what you do there will always be some germs left, and as soon as you are done washing your hands, new germs will come and start reproducing rapidly; we’ll never win!

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