With the change of season, everyone seems to be either nursing a cold or trying to avoid getting one. And yet we humans still shake hands with each other, or worse, touch surfaces like bathroom door handles that can harbor cold-causing germs for days.
So, what to do? Use the ubiquitous hand sanitizer, obsessively wash our hands? Both? Neither? And which is better for the environment?
The answer is not cut and dried, and it may surprise you. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) tells us in this helpful video that a million deaths a year could be prevented simply by properly washing our hands.
But just what is “proper” hand washing? Again we turn to the experts at the CDC whose most important piece of advice is that when washing hands, we need to rub soapy hands together for at least 20 seconds, then rinse and dry with a clean towel or cloth. When doing this, remember to turn off the water while lathering to avoid wasting water and to choose a reusable towel whenever possible.
When a paper towel is the only option, seek out choices made from recycled fibers, like those from Seventh Generation. In the US alone, we use 13 billion pounds of disposable paper towels every year, and we know that most people use more than one when drying their hands. In this engaging Ted Talk, Joe Smith shows us how to effectively dry our hands with just one paper towel, by shaking our wet hands after washing, and by folding the towel in half before wiping. We’ve tried his method, and it works. We also use that same towel to grab the bathroom doorknob on the way out, artfully holding the door open with one foot as we toss the used towel into the wastebasket.
According to the CDC, hand sanitizers must have at least 60% alcohol to be effective, and when hands are visibly soiled, hand washing is best. Hand washing is also cheaper. But what about those circumstances, like when traveling or without access to water, that hand washing isn’t practical?
At those times, we look for a hand sanitizer that not only has the requisite alcohol content, but one which doesn’t contain Triclosan, a harmful chemical that has been implicated in endocrine disruption and even the weakening our cardiovascular systems. EO products makes a nice sanitizer option that’s Triclosan-free.
So, while “reach out and touch someone” may be a great slogan for a phone company, it may not be the best thing to do when trying to avoid catching (or sharing) a cold. Our best defense seems to be what our Mothers told us to do before dinner when we were kids: give our hands a good old-fashioned washing with soap and water.