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Infectious Diseases

Disinfecting with alcohol rinses and gels

You know how important it is to wash your hands to stay healthy, but what do you do when soap and water are not handy? Try using an alcohol rinse or gel that you can carry with you. Here's an overview on these convenient cleansers.

How they work

Alcohol-based hand rubs (ABHRs) kill the germs on hands, including illness-causing bacteria that are picked up from doorknobs, light switches and others surfaces that hands come into contact with. The effectiveness of the sanitizers depends on the amount and type of alcohol used. A range of 60-90% alcohol is effective in reducing bacteria on the hands. Even if your hands look clean, it's good to sanitize them often because you can't always see the germs that make you sick. Their use in school/child care settings has been shown to reduce the number of days that children are away sick and the number of infections.

How to use them

Apply a loonie-size squeeze on to your hands. This will be enough to cover your hands and get under your nails. Rub hands together covering all areas including the back of hands, nail beds and between fingers until the alcohol is absorbed and hands feel dry. Avoid touching your face or eyes until hands are dry. Help children the first few times to teach them how to properly use the rinse or gel. Because alcohol can be toxic, and very small volumes of highly concentrated hand sanitizer are needed to make infants and toddlers intoxicated, it is important that these necessary hand sanitizers be kept out the reach of young children and their use be supervised at all times. Licking of the hands after the sanitizer is dry carries no chance of alcohol intoxication. Ensure to read the manufacturer's directions on use.

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Alcohol gels and the skin

There is usually a skin-softening agent in ABHRs that will help to keep skin from becoming dry. Intact skin is the first line of defence, therefore careful attention to skin care is an essential part of a hand hygiene program. If broken or extremely dry skin is an issue or if your hands become red and irritated, stop using the ABHR and see a primary healthcare professional. Hand lotion prevents drying and cracked skin. Pump-type containers are recommended. If containers are reused, the containers and the pumps should be washed and dried before refilling.

Don't give up soap and water

You can use ABHRs whenever you normally would wash your hands or after touching anything that you think is not clean such as money, telephones and keyboards. However the alcohol wash should not replace soap and water when hands are visibly dirty. To make sure that you are washing your hands properly: 

  1. Wet hands with water
  2. Add soap and rub briskly to lather
  3. Rub hands, wrists and under fingernails for at least 15 seconds
  4. Rinse hands under running water
  5. Dry with a paper towel and turn off tap with the towel

It’s the soap combined with the scrubbing action that helps free and remove germs. Also remember to keep nails short and clean, wash wrists and remove watches and jewelry when you wash your hands.

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