Super Bacteria?

Posted by on Aug 8, 2018 in Science and Technology

Over the past decade or so, hand sanitizers have become a growing trend. You’ve probably seen the little bottles clipped to purses and backpacks, or given out as freebies at fairs and other events. They’re also very common in hospitals and doctors’ offices. Often, the dispensers are installed in every room so that health care providers can quickly and conveniently douse themselves before and after contact with a patient.

But is it possible that all of this sanitizing is actually making us sicker? Surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes.


E.coli bacteria in petri dish

Credit: Linde1/E+/Getty Images

To understand the problem with hand sanitizer, first you need to understand how it works. Most hand sanitizer is comprised of about 60 to 70 percent isopropanol alcohol (rubbing alcohol). This alcohol kills microbial cells by disrupting the outer coating of viruses, and the cell membrane of bacteria. This is different from the effect of hand washing with soap and water, which physically removes the bacteria and viruses from the surface of your skin and sends them down the drain.

What scientists have been discovering is that, while hand sanitizer is highly effective at killing off some types of bacteria, such as those that lead to staph infections, the rate of other infections (such as enterococcal infections, caused by bacteria that affect the digestive tract, heart, and bladder) started increasing right around the same time that hand sanitizer use became commonplace. This is because, while sanitizer does a great job killing soft-shelled organisms, it can’t penetrate the hard-shelled variety.

When people started using hand sanitizer more, and washing their hands less, it allowed for a greater risk of infection by these hard-shelled bacteria and viruses.

Building Tolerance

To make matters worse, scientists have found that some strains of bacteria are actually growing resistant to the alcohol in hand sanitizer, meaning that it takes a higher and higher concentration of alcohol to kill them. Some strains of bacteria weren’t killed until they were doused with a 70 percent alcohol mixture. However, most hand sanitizers are only about 60 percent alcohol.

One difficult issue when combating bacteria is that, because they multiply so quickly, they evolve very rapidly.  This means that it can be hard to combat their spread. And the resistance of these types of bacteria to alcohol is growing quickly as well. In fact, post-2009 bacteria are ten times more tolerant of alcohol than pre-2004 bacteria were. Some of these strains are also not responding to even the strongest antibiotics, meaning that hospitals are running out of ways to treat them.

So . . . Are We Doomed?

It’s important to remember that these bacteria are alcohol-tolerant, not alcohol-resistant. This means that they can still be killed by alcohol, although it takes longer and requires higher doses of alcohol than ever before to get the job done. But doctors urge that the very best thing you can do to combat the spread of these bacteria is simple: return to washing your hands with soap and water. It may not be as convenient or as trendy as those cute little bottles of sanitizer, but in the end, it’s far more effective.

Dig Deeper Did you know that Global Handwashing Day is a thing? It is. Visit this Web site to learn more about it, and then write a short paragraph explaining why this day is important.