What does it mean to sanitise?

This week has been the WEEK OF THE SANITISER. We have sold more Hand and Surface SANITISER in this week than ever before. Not only did the volume of sales take us by suprise, but also the urgency of it all. I suspect it has something to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. I suspect people feel safer after they have sprayed their hands. And having a tiny bottle of sanitiser in your hand bag is reassuring, because you can reach for it whenever you feel like it.

The truth is that sanitiser is a single line of defense, and possibly the weakest one at that. We have had questions about whether we have proof that our SANITISE kills COVID-19. I get that people want to know. We are all trying to stay safe. And a consumer has the right to ask questions before buying a product, especially now when home brews of sanitiser crop up here and there. But the repeated questions made me wonder whether the term ‘santise’ is properly understood. No, we do not have proof that our SANITISE kills COVID-19. COVID-19 is a novel strain of coronavirus and neither alcohol nor any sanitiser has been shown to kill it, simply because the studies have not been done. But the real point here is that a sanitising product by defenition does not kill all microorganisms.

Let’s disentangle sterilise, disinfect and sanitise first. These words are used interchangeably but each actually means something very specific.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sterilise means that you have ‘destroyed or eliminated all forms of microbial life (even spores!) and is carried out in health-care facilities by physical or chemical methods.’ This is a process that generally needs time and perhaps even specialised equipment. Disinfect means to ‘eliminate many or all pathogenic microorganisms, except bacterial spores, on inanimate objects.’ (https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/introduction.html ). These two processes are especialy important in hospital settings to prevent the spread of disease.

Sanitise ‘is a chemical process that lessens and even kills germs on surfaces to make them safe for contact’ ( https://home.howstuffworks.com/home-improvement/household-hints-tips/cleaning-organizing/disinfecting-vs-sanitizing.htm ). This is generally what happens in homes when you wipe your counters with bleach. It is not recommended as part of routine cleaning but now and again one wants to sanitise even the home, such as when a member of the family is ill.

Now let us take a closer look at hand sanitisers. They are by definition meant to lessen the amount of bacteria and viruses. Not one sanitiser guarantees to kill all pathogens.

There are important differences between washing hands with soap and water and cleaning them with hand sanitizer. For example, alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t kill ALL types of germs, such as a stomach bug called norovirus, some parasites, and Clostridium difficile, which causes severe diarrhea. Hand sanitizers also may not remove harmful chemicals, such as pesticides and heavy metals like lead. Handwashing reduces the amounts of all types of germs, pesticides, and metals on hands. Knowing when to clean your hands and which method to use will give you the best chance of preventing sickness.

( https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/pdf/hand-sanitizer-factsheet.pdf )

Take home message?

Sanitiser was never meant to save you. Wash your hands often and vigourously. Use sanitiser to ‘fill in the gaps’ and to clean unwashable surfaces such as your phone.

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