The Rise of Alcohol Gels and Hand Sanitizers like Purell and Germ-X

As people fend off the ever-circulating office bug, familiar desktop items like tissues, trolls, and tacky photo frames are getting pushed aside to make room for pump bottles of hand sanitizer. Alcohol gel products like Purell and Germ-X have permeated cubicle culture and have also become staples in schools, diaper bags, kitchens, and suitcases. Just yesterday on the bus, I watched a woman select a seat and then immediately rifle through her purse, promptly producing a bottle of Target brand hand sanitizer. She fastidiously extracted a generous dollop of alcohol gel and began to rub her palms together vigorously. She then did the same thing three minutes later, apparently intent on eliminating whatever microbes she had encountered in the 180 seconds since the previous application.

While some people take clearly their fear of germs to near-paranoid levels, there is a degree of usefulness in alcohol gels that comprise hand sanitizers like Purell and Germ-X. So just how do these products work, why are they so popular, and what is the difference between the brands of hand sanitizer?

How does an alcohol gel hand sanitizer work?

Most alcohol gels sold to consumers follow a basic formula: ethyl alcohol, water, a skin moisturizer, and some type of fragrance. The alcohol itself kills the germs by attacking the outer layer of skin while the moisturizer ensures that the skin is not irritated by the alcohol. The water is basically filler, and the fragrance just makes us feel cleaner because of the mental associations we have with “clean” smells. The contact of the bacteria-covered skin with the alcohol gel (and the subsequent friction of the hand rubbing) allows the sanitizer to work its magic in all the nooks and crannies of our hands.

Is there any difference between major brands of hand sanitizer?

To my surprise, the answer is: not really. Purell is a product of chemical giant Pfizer’s consumer healthcare division, and Germ-X is manufactured by Vi-Jon Laboratories. After pulling up the ingredient labels for both Purell and Germ-X alcohol gels, I found that the active ingredient is not only identical (ethyl alcohol) but also present in the exact same proportion: 66.2% across the board. So the only real differences between the two major brands of hand sanitizers are the fragrances, additives, packaging, and marketing approaches. Purell sells regular hand sanitizer and sanitizers with added moisturizer or aloe. Germ-X offers original hand sanitizer along with aloe, lavender, chamomile, and citrus varieties. Of course, major retailers like Target also offer their own brands of hand sanitizer which are essentially the no-frills version of Purell and Germ-X alcohol gels.

Why is hand sanitizer so popular?

Many of us have grown up with parents, teachers, doctors, and even Sesame Street characters preaching the importance of hand washing. Combine this with fear-based local news reports, and you’ve got a society ripely aware of (and afraid of) germs. But on average, Americans today also spend less time at home and more time in public spaces, often too busy to wash hands except after using the bathroom. With all this “on the go” lifestyle business, it’s easy to see how hand sanitizers became so popular. Here is a product that makes handwashing possible practically anywhere. All you have to do is squeeze or pump a coin-sized bit of fragrant goop into your hands, rub it around, and presto – you’re supposedly safe for a period of time. The alcohol gel in hand sanitizers really does kill bacteria, and its regular use does seem to reduce risk for colds. But it also has a sort of built-in “fun” component, especially for kids, who tend to enjoy either the fragrance or the action of rubbing the gel itself. And some adults (probably like the woman on my bus) even find hand sanitizers somewhat addicting. It’s not unlike the breath mint phenomenon.

Is hand sanitizer effective in all settings?

Colorado State University produces a Safe Food newsletter that addressed alcohol gels in its Spring 2004 issue, reminding people that hand sanitizers, while effective in killing bacteria, are not appropriate in all settings. While the at-work use of hand sanitizers has gained much credibility for hospital workers and other medical professionals, the gels are deemed less effective for food service employees who handle different items – and thus face different kinds of bacteria. Ultimately, most experts agree that there is no substitute for regular hand washing with hot water, soap, and rubbing action. Alcohol gels remain just a supplement in the war on germs, but they’re apparently here to stay – so rub vigorously.

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