Hand Sanitizer is not Enough

I’m seeing more and more backcountry books that suggest using hand sanitizer by itself. That does not work. Soap and water is necessary, sanitizer is optional.

The Scouts Backpacking Cookbook is one of those with that bad advice. The BSA Handbook gets it right. Wash your hands with soap and water.

Clean hands are important in the backcountry. People who know, like Tod Schimelpfenig, Curriculum Director at the Wilderness Medicine Institute of the National Outdoor Leadership School, believe that dirty hands are a bigger health risk than dirty water.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say that hand sanitizer does not work on dirty hands. Natural oils and dirt on your hands create a barrier to the sanitizing action. The CDC procedure is to wash off visible dirt first, then sanitize. Here is a clear PDF handout about clean hands from the Connecticut Department of Public Health. This is a good thing to distribute to your troop.

How do you wash your hands well? Wash with soap and water, scrubbing for the time it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song twice (20 seconds), then rinse. That’s it.

Soap is also lighter than hand sanitizer. An ounce of concentrated soap will last for a couple of years of backpacking. I carry a basin cut from the bottom of a milk carton (33g, 1 oz.) and a small bottle of biodegradable soap (25g, 1 oz.). Again, that is a lot of soap.

If you do want to follow up with hand sanitizer, there are a few options.

Alcohol hand sanitizer: This is the most common kind. It must be 60% alcohol or more to be effective. It can dry out your hands and increase the chance of skin cracks on a long trip. Bacteria hide in skin cracks.

There is enough alcohol in hand sanitizer to make it flammable. I haven’t seen boys figure this out yet, but they will. One could make a good argument that alcohol hand sanitizer is a chemical fuel and should be handled according to the Guide to Safe Scouting rules on chemical fuels. When I teach Introduction to Outdoor Leader Skills to Scoutmasters, I demonstrate alcohol hand sanitizer on toilet paper as an emergency fire starter.

Amk sanitizer mdBenzalkonium chloride (BAK): Non-alcohol sanitizers use BAK, the same thing used in Bactine (which also has lidocaine, an anesthetic). BAK is effective and also useful as part of a first aid kit. Adventure Medical makes a nice 0.5 ounce spray bottle of non-alcohol sanitizer. That is what I carry.

Herbal sanitizers: Or, ineffective hand sanitizers. Concoctions like lavender oil may kill some bacteria, but they are not a reliable sanitizer. They are also “smellables”, and go up in the bear or raccoon bag, along with anything they have been spread on. If you want to keep your Scouts in their tents rather than in the bear bag, stick with an alcohol or BAK hand sanitizer.

If you are up for a longer article on this, with references, read Ryan Jordan on hand sanitizers.

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