August 12th, 2014
04:38 PM ET

Hand sanitizer doesn't help in schools

School children get low marks when it comes to spreading germs, often sharing bugs with their classmates. So scientists wondered if putting hand sanitizers into elementary school classrooms would lead to fewer absences.

The study

Researchers in New Zealand set out to discover if using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, in addition to regular hand washing, would cut back on absentee rates in schools.

They recruited 68 primary schools, and all students were given a half-hour hygiene lesson. They then assigned half of the schools to a control group where children washed their hands with soap and water. The schools in the intervention group did the same, but were also asked to use classroom hand sanitizers when they coughed or sneezed, and before meals.

When children missed school, calls were made to find out if the child was sick. The research team checked-in with the caregivers of more than 2,400 children, keeping track of the type and length of their illnesses during 20 weeks of school.

The results

Absentee rates between the two groups were virtually the same, the study authors found.

"These findings suggest that, in high-income countries where clean water for hand washing is readily available, putting resources into extra hand hygiene by providing hand sanitizer in classrooms may not be an effective way to break the child-to-child transmission of infectious diseases," an accompanying editorial in the journal concluded.


An unexpected flu epidemic during the course of the study may have affected the findings. Heightened awareness about the benefits of clean hands during the epidemic may have led to more hand washing overall, making it more difficult to see if hand sanitizers gave added benefit, says Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician in Atlanta who was not involved with the study.

But the study authors say that the impact of hand sanitizer would be particularly important during an influenza pandemic, and they found "providing hand sanitizer was not an effective mechanism for reducing illness absence."

The takeaway

So what is the takeaway message for schools and parents? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's best to have children wash their hands with soap and water. If a sink is not available, hand sanitizers with an alcohol concentration of at least 60% are a good second choice.

The bottom line, do what it takes to rub those germs away.

soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. Angel

    Our school system has a nasty little habit of only using hand sanitizers. I wrote a note informing my kids teachers that I would prefer my kids to be allowed to wash their hands than to use the hand sanitizer. Odd thing they didn't miss any days, other than the one their dentist appointment was on.

    August 12, 2014 at 17:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • alien57

      Hear, hear. I hate hand sanitizer. Teach them to use soap and water sensibly, not obsessively, and they'll catch a few colds, sure, but they'll also develop a decent immune system. If they never catch anything, their systems won't know what to do when a nasty bug comes along.

      August 12, 2014 at 20:21 | Report abuse |
  2. Walt Hayes

    My understanding is that alcohol-based sanitizer only kills bacteria, NOT viruses. So anything viral on a child's hand (FLU, MERS, cold, etc. )needs to be washed off with soap, as sanitizer will do no good.

    August 12, 2014 at 17:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • James

      Well your understanding is wrong, hand sanitizers kill most viruses and bacteria.

      August 12, 2014 at 18:10 | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      Except viruses are not living to begin with. As a biology grad, that's one thing I hear and see that nags me. You don't kill viruses no more than you would kill a rock.

      August 13, 2014 at 01:03 | Report abuse |
    • Ajax

      Hand sanitizers kill most bacteria and fungi and will stop some viruses. Viruses are actually more like parasitic seeds which requires a living metabolic system to replicate and produce or absorb energy. On their own they don't demonstrate the functions that define life as we know it.

      August 13, 2014 at 07:10 | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      As a retired college prof I have said this for years and years. Viruses are not living and sanitizers will not work to control them as for bacteria, all we are doing with them is selecting strains of resistant forms by using sanitizers.

      August 17, 2014 at 14:15 | Report abuse |
  3. retired teacher

    It took time, but every day after school I would spray each desk with a bleach/water solution, wipe down with paper towels. It is my firm belief that desks add to the dilemma--and pencils....(of course, we cannot sanitize pencils, but lending them to friends also a bad idea). Sooo, I kept boxes of new pencils available to give out whenever one was needed. Classrooms are havens for germ growth, requiring over the top effort to maintain a cleaner environment.

    August 12, 2014 at 19:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • alien57

      Seems a little extreme. Kids need to develop immunity to the nasty bugs around, and sanitizing everything prevents them from doing so. Teach them to wash their hands with soap after using the bathroom, of course, but don't overdo the germ-elimination. A bit of dirt is good for them.

      August 12, 2014 at 20:11 | Report abuse |
    • another teacher

      It's not extreme. I cleaned my classroom with antibacterial cleaner almost twice a day. I couldn't use bleach because it was banned from our school system but I tried to keep it clean. Since I taught art I also used my own supplies and never used used the tools as the students. I also tried to wash most supplies when I could in hot soapy water and always kept soaps by the sinks.

      August 13, 2014 at 04:42 | Report abuse |
  4. Hospital Patient

    All I know, is that when I had brain surgery, the hospital and the rehab facility, had hand sanitizer on every room door frame, and no one came in or left without using it. If it did not work, they would not go to the expense of using it. I keep it at home, and encourage my children to use it randomly. I also keep soap on the sinks, because you can't keep your hands too clean.

    August 12, 2014 at 20:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • skeptical

      Frankly, health care facilities do a lot of things to improve the perception of sanitation, whether or not it improves actual sanitation.

      August 12, 2014 at 22:25 | Report abuse |
    • portlandtony

      There are definitely a lot more serious bacteria and viruses present in hospitals than in the average home or classroom. After all, hospitals are dealing with intrusive and invasive procedures that cannot be compromised by the spread of staph etc infections.

      August 12, 2014 at 23:11 | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      Right on that skeptical. The sheep in this country are so ignorant. There are many microbes that live both on and in you that you shouldn't be trying to kill. This is what you have an immune system for folks. There is a difference between clean and folly.

      August 13, 2014 at 01:06 | Report abuse |
    • portlandtony

      @Tyler: regardless of your expertise in immunology, there ARE indivual's with compromised immune systems: those undergoing Chemo therapy, the aged, those taking life saving drug therapy, the aged etc. Granted most of the junk advertised on media outlets is unneeded and probably harmful in the long run. Children should be allowed to develop their immune system as they grow by exposure to allergens and minor bacteria/viruses and not sprayed daily with so called germ killing chemicals. Your body only builds a strong immunity to disease by minor exposure to the pathogen! This one of the principles behind vaccinations.

      August 13, 2014 at 16:32 | Report abuse |
  5. woodie

    I suppose you could send them to school wearing masks. I'm just sayin.

    August 12, 2014 at 20:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Born in the USA

    How about parents keep kids home from school when they are sick, instead of sending them? Too many times they are sent to school and tell their friends they threw up at home .... and end up infecting half their class.

    August 12, 2014 at 21:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • TB

      Most things are contagious before there are actual symptoms.

      August 12, 2014 at 23:30 | Report abuse |
  7. uncommon sense

    Alcohol hand sanitizers do nearly NOTHING to prevent the spread of viruses, such as influenza and colds.

    When alcohol works, it does so by killing bacteria. But viruses can't be killed as such. They are not alive to begin with!

    However simple things such as installing copper or brass door handles can have a very large effect, by automatically neutralizing any residual viruses or bacteria within two minutes.

    August 12, 2014 at 21:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bun

      Copper and brass can have an inherent anti-germ effect within 2 hours or less, not 2 minutes. But the premise of copper and brass neutralizing germs over time is correct.

      August 12, 2014 at 22:46 | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      Alcohol in concentrations found in most hand sanitizers inactivates many viruses associated with common diseases (e.g., rhinovirus, influenza virus, herpes, etc.). A succinct explanation is provided here: http://www.cdc.gov/hicpac/disinfection_sterilization/6_0disinfection.html

      August 13, 2014 at 00:15 | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      Silver for that matter as well.

      August 13, 2014 at 01:07 | Report abuse |
    • Rocky Green

      I did not read every post, but it would seem that about the only knowledgeable (and very intelligent by the way) contribution comes from Steve, who recommends


      August 13, 2014 at 04:04 | Report abuse |
  8. Ben

    I thought hand sanitizer was used to kill weak bacteria so the stronger strains could more easily multiply and spread.

    August 12, 2014 at 22:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. larper2

    How about more desk/table washing and cleaning of the toys....

    August 13, 2014 at 00:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. S H

    When I was in school in the 70's and 80's we did not have hand sanitizers in every corner, we did not have wipe for the handles of shopping carts and yet some how we managed not to have some major flu epidemic or something. Of course we did not have nut/dairy/whatever free zones at just about every school either. I'm not saying forsake all hygiene but I think we have gone way overboard and are creating a germophobic culture, those same germs were on surfaces 30+ years ago and simple hand washing seemed to do the trick just fine and we weren't afraid to touch everything without wiping it down first. I handled many a pay phone in my younger years and I, like many others back ten an still here.

    August 13, 2014 at 01:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. sd

    I think they did a study on alcohol swabs in hospitals also. and found that they didn't do any good. so...now that we have ebola, we might as well have kid tyvek suits. the privatize everything people are going to have everyone scared to send their kids to school.

    August 13, 2014 at 01:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Tyler

    Though I agree with much of what you say, one thing that is worse are the strains of bacteria that were once easily treated now becoming resistant to their antibiotics. You would not believe the number of doctors who don't accept evolution and hand out antibiotics irresponsibly. I know everyone has freedom of speech and can say and believe anything you want, but you don't have the freedom to be correct. Ignorance isn't bliss. In many cases in science, it's quite lethal.

    August 13, 2014 at 01:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Study

    This study is flawed. For many and multiple reasons.
    1. They are studying absenteeism. What if more students were at home for different reasons than the year before? What if a new group of students entered the school with a higher rate of absences than the previous year?
    2. They state that they can not find a correlation due to a flu outbreak. So the study needs to reject the null hypothesis.
    3. Viruses are non-living therefore they can't be killed. No amount of hand washing or alcohol can kill them. Our anti-bodies must find them, mark them, recognize them and disable them. If they mutate it starts all over again.
    4. They did not have a control group.
    5. Bacteria/ viruses will mutate no matter what.
    6. Exposing your child to many and multiple viruses all at once, can weaken your immunity to a point of non-return. You would not expose your child to Ebola just because you can and you think it is good for them. Flu kills many people every year.
    7. Using hand sanitizers is not going to save the world but it is not going to destroy it either.

    August 13, 2014 at 01:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • saidit


      They state that they called caregivers to verify sickness
      They had a control group.
      The flu virus isn't particularly resilient outside of the body.
      You can wash off a virus. Scrubbing is important.

      Honesty, if there was an ebola outbreak in my area, I wouldn't send my kid to school until its over.

      August 13, 2014 at 02:06 | Report abuse |
  14. justsickofit

    For those who don't know the difference, most illness is caused by VIRUS that spread between people through direct contact. Hand sanitizes do absolutely nothing to stop virus. Water and soap are much more effective in removing bacteria, virus and dirt from your hands.

    The only people who like hand sanitizers are the sales people for the horrible things.

    August 13, 2014 at 02:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Mel Stricker

    I am 67 and all the time I grew up we didn't need hand sanitizers or anything like that and kids were not dropping like flies. It has been reported that all the germ-o-phobia is causing people to be less immune to common germs. I see these hand sanitizers everywhere. It is absurd. The really dumb things I see, just make me laugh
    1. People will go to a food court and put sanitizer on their hands then buy food, handle money (the dirtiest thing you can touch) then pick up their sandwich without another splash of hand sanitizer.
    2. People will go to a public washroom, wash their hands, grab a paper towel to open the door, then grab the handle of the next door (where ever that is), with their bare hands (what, did the supposed germs on the washroom door magically disappear before people touched the second door?).
    3. A food service person will put on food gloves to make someone their food order, then handle the money with the gloves on, then use the same gloves for the next order. People see this and normally say nothing.

    It is all do comic.

    August 13, 2014 at 02:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Remind

      Remind me not to touch anything in your trailer.

      August 14, 2014 at 14:59 | Report abuse |
  16. BFN

    The most effective way to purge germs on your hands is to wash them thoroughly with water and antibacterial soap. But water isn't always available when you want to clean your hands, and it's not always practical to drop what you're doing and go wash your hands for two minutes. That's what hand sanitizer is for. It's not snake oil, it really does kill germs, even if it isn't quite as good as full-blown hand washing. In my opinion it's worth having around. It has its place. It's not always practical to march 30 kids to a sink, line them up, and have them wash their hands with soap and water.

    I notice several posters here making the same general comment: We didn't have hand sanitizer when I was growing up and we got along fine. I find that to be completely unpersuauive. You can say that about almost every innovation of the last 30 years. We "got along fine" without iPads, cell phones, the internet, and GPS devices, too. But that doesn't rebut they are very useful now that we have them. I'll wash my hands when I'm home, but I find hand sanitizer to be a useful thing to carry around for those times when I want to clean up and hand washing isn't convenient. That's what it's for.

    August 13, 2014 at 05:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Mike C

    There's a big difference between hand sanitizer not "helping" and hand sanitizer causing less absences. Kids staying home from school has nothing to do with the fact that hand sanitizer DOES help by killing many germs and keeping you cleaner. That's like saying an extra sink with soap and water didn't help with absences...of course it won't, but that doesn't mean that washing your hands doesn't help you. This article is whack!!

    August 13, 2014 at 07:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Grubby Hands

      Hindsight is always 20-20 and an extra sink in a school where there is only one would help reduce the chance of spreading germs. (But of course, that hypothesis would have to be tested; therein lies the reason for research like this.)

      August 13, 2014 at 07:35 | Report abuse |
  18. tommymc3putt

    Throw away the hand sanitizer and let your kids stomp around in mudholes when they're young. Let them skin their knees, and don't treat it like you would a Category A infectious disease when it does happen. Let them live a little (exercising REASONABLE precautions, of course), and they'll be more resistant to sickness in the long run.

    August 13, 2014 at 07:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. David

    Many schoolroom illness are transmitted by kids coughing and sneezing their germs into the air. Hand washing and sanitizing hardly keeps harmful airborne germs from being passed from around in a classroom. Anyone heard of sneezX?

    August 13, 2014 at 07:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. MakeThisLookAwesome

    Soap and water won't stop the spread of highly dangerous "superbugs" like MRSA, which strike schools on a regular basis in this country. Only alcohol-based sanitation products are safe and effective against MRSA at prices schools can afford Regular antimicrobal soap isn't enough, and MRSA specific products are notoriously expensive and toxic.

    Cutting down on the number of days a kid stays home from school is not the only health risk out there for which we wash our hands. This study has such a myopic view of the point of sanitation that the conclusions it reaches are dangerous. Doctors don't just use soap and water anymore. Why should you or your kids?

    (I have no conflicts of interest, nor am I any way endorsed, financed, or supported in any way by any company. My opinions are my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else.)

    August 17, 2014 at 20:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Timmy Suckle "The Medical Cartel Puppet"

    I kissed my way up to CEO at a health insurance company. Now I take over $1,000,000 of your health care dollars for NO VALUE ADDED to your health care. And that’s just me. Now think about how many other CEOs, VPs, Directors, Managers, etc. are at my company alone. Now multiply that by thousands of others at hundreds of other health insurance companies. From 10 to 25% of your health care dollars go towards administration that adds NO VALUE to your health care. But my company’s PAC dollars will continue to fool you little people into thinking that a single payer system will be bad. Little people like you are so easy to fool. Little people also don’t realize that a single payer system is the ONLY system that would allow little people (as an entire country) to negotiate better health care prices. Little people don’t realize that the Medical Cartels already know that. And that is the reason why the Medical Cartels spend so much PAC money from the hospitals and doctors lobbying against a single payer system. Some little people say that a single payer system would cost you little people more. But if that were true, then wouldn’t the hospitals and doctors WANT that extra money? Yes they would. So why do the Medical Cartels lobby against a single payer system? It’s because the Medical Cartels know it would allow little people to negotiate better health care prices. And that’s what the Medical Cartels are afraid of. Period.
    But us big wigs at insurance companies, hospitals, and pharmacy companies don’t ever need to worry about health care no matter what it costs. We get our health care paid for one way or another by you little people. And we get the little people that work at our companies to contribute to our PACs. And us big wigs say it’s to protect the little peoples’ jobs. But in reality it would be in the little peoples’ best interest to NOT contribute to the PAC. Again, little people are so easily fooled. I won’t ever have to worry about losing my job with so many little people being brain washed by the Medical Cartels’ PAC money. Not only that, the Medical Cartels’ PAC money is used to elect so many republicans that will never allow a single payer system. Republicans have always fought against any meaningful health care reform. But that’s what our Medical Cartels’ PACs pay them for. Politicians can be bought so easily.
    Pretty soon the only people that will be able to afford health care is us big wigs. And that’s the way it should be. We don’t want you little people using up the resources when we need them. And once again, I thank you little people for capping my SS tax at the $117,000 level. Now I only pay 1.17% SS tax and you little people pay 6.2%. Also, thank you for extending my tax breaks. I’m using the extra money on my vacation houses.

    August 18, 2014 at 09:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Amber

    In the medical field, we are always taught never to use hand sanitizer before eating, after using the bathroom, or when we cover a cough/sneeze with our hands. It's always best to wash our hands!! You should only use hand sanitizer when your hands aren't visibly soiled and no more than 3 times in a row. In addition to teaching children proper hand hygiene, they should also be taught the proper way to cover a cough/sneeze, using their upper arm nearest the armpit.

    August 23, 2014 at 13:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. shirley789

    My 7 year old has a chemical sensitivity and the alcohol in the sanitisers made her very ill. We are exposing our child to far too many chemicals and this is making them very ill. My daughter has anaphylaxis, asthma and chemical sensitivity. Kids like her are telling us something – let's clean up our environment and go back to basics I say!

    September 24, 2014 at 04:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. jakebvt2022

    "An unexpected flu epidemic during the course"

    As a scientist I think that this would entirely negate the study. I don't know of any respectable person in academia who would cite this study. Try the study again.

    September 29, 2014 at 09:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Odalice Feliz

    The takeaway

    So what is the takeaway message for schools and parents? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's best to have children wash their hands with soap and water. If a sink is not available, hand sanitizers with an alcohol concentration of at least 60% are a good second choice.

    The bottom line, do what it takes to rub those germs away.

    March 10, 2015 at 09:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Odalice Feliz


    March 10, 2015 at 09:22 | Report abuse | Reply

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