Hand and germs illustration
Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/10/2007 9:11:09 AM ET 2007-12-10T14:11:09

They pull their sleeves down over their hands to open doors, surreptitiously sanitize while on buses, subways and airplanes. At the gym, they towel off their elliptical trainers like car detailers in search of a $100 tip. At work, they’re ready to break out the Clorox the minute somebody coughs.

Who are these incredibly sterile souls? They’re the citizens of a germ-conscious segment of the country you might call hand-sanitation nation.

“I notice more and more women in the bathroom using paper towels to open and close the door, or dashing out behind somebody else so they don’t have to touch the door at all,” says Mary Wilson, 38, of Seattle. “People will use their knuckles to punch elevator buttons, and the grocery stores all have Handiwipes to wipe off the baskets now. I’m sort of a closet germophobe, but I’m beginning to feel like much less of a freak these days. Other people are doing the same quirky things.”

While germophobes have long been the butt of jokes, recent reports of virulent new super bugs coupled with the inevitable return of cold and flu season may have actually made germ consciousness sort of, well, trendy.

Supermarkets, health clubs and restaurants now offer customers complimentary sanitizer packets, wipes, and hygienic gels and sprays. Online you’ll find everything from high-tech disinfecting light wands to embroidered hand sanitizer/tissue holders to designer antibacterial hand gel in “enticing warm fragrances” like black raspberry vanilla and brown sugar and fig. On TV, there’s both a germophobic detective (Tony Shalhoub’s Monk) and a germophobic game show host (Howie Mandel, who refuses to shake hands with anyone, including his Deal or No Deal contestants).

And no one’s laughing, at least not since stories of MRSA-related infections — and deaths — hit the news. Instead, people seem to be crossing over to the freshly disinfected side.

“I’ve always been a hand washer and now I’m a hand sanitizer, too,” says Linda Moore, 46, of Memphis, Tenn. “And as a result, I don’t get colds. I won’t do it right after I shake hands with someone, but I do clean up before I eat. My friends all used to tease me about it, but now they want it. Every time we sit down to lunch they all stick out their hands and ask me to give them a squirt.”

Moore isn’t the only one who swears by her germ-fighting gel. In the last few years, sales figures for various types of hand sanitizers have almost tripled, rising from nearly $28 million for 2002 to approximately $80 million for the year 2006. A recently released study conducted at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, showed the preference for alcohol hand rub increased from 4.3 percent to a whopping 51 percent among physicians in the last five years

And there’s good reason for its popularity.

A 2003 study involving 430 college students in Boulder, Colo., resulted in 43 percent less sick days for students who had alcohol gel hand-sanitizer dispensers installed in every room, bathroom and dining hall.

“Alcohol-based gel hand sanitizers are as effective as hand washing for most purposes,” says Dr. William Marshall, an infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic, “and they’re often easier to use because you can use them quickly.”

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And “insta-clean” appeal is no small thing, especially for those of us who are too busy or too burdened to spend 30 seconds standing in front of a sink.

“When you’re running around chasing preschoolers, you may not have time to wash your hands properly,” says Leah Killian, a 25-year-old stay-at-home mom from Travis Air Force Base, Calif. “So I’m a big fan of antibacterial stuff. I can just squirt that on and keep going.”

Of course, for every sanitized soul out there, there’s a soap and water slacker who can’t be bothered with any of that silly hygiene stuff. A recent study offers a grimy glimpse at the other side of the great germ divide. 

A September 2007 observational study of more than 6,000 people across the nation found that only 77 percent of men and women washed their hands after using a public restroom, a 6 percent decline from a similar study done in 2005.  In some instances — such as the men’s room at Atlanta’s Turner Field — the number of hand washers tumbled to an eyebrow-raising low of 57 percent.

Ironically, though, some of those who flee the faucet are actually diehard germ warriors. “I use a combination of soap and water and antibacterial lotion throughout the day, but if I have to use a public restroom, I will not wash my hands,” says Killian. “You just feel like what’s the point? Everything is so filthy you just have to get out of there and then cleanse yourself with hand sanitizer.”

But Dr. Philip Hagen, a preventive medicine specialist at Mayo Clinic, says that between modern technology — and the mighty human body — we’re covered, even when it comes to “nasty” public restrooms.

“There are increasingly more sinks that turn on based on hand motion and soap dispensers that dispense just the right amount of soap with minimal touching,” he says. “And if people want to use a towel to turn off the faucet or open the door, that’s OK. But we’re likely to pick up bacteria and viruses from our environment fairly quickly and our bodies are well-designed to combat that.”

But while hand sanitizers are quick and convenient and can help kick the “ick factor” of public bathrooms to the curb, not everyone considers them the magic hygiene bullet.

“I’ll use a hand sanitizer in a pinch, like when I’m camping or in porta-potty situation, but I can’t stand the smell,” says Michelle Goodman, a staunch soap and water fan from Seattle.  “It’s like my grandmother’s nursing home and the public restroom at Port Authority all rolled into one. Plus, they really dry out my hands.”

The wee bottles of alcohol-based gel can also put little kids, who've been known to drink the stuff, at risk for getting sick — and drunk.

Others question the long-term effects.

“I don’t use hand sanitizers at all,” says Abigail Grotke, 40, of Takoma Park, Md. “I think they’re a bit scary, particularly with all of these antibiotic concerns  They just seem too cleansing. My mom always said that some germs are good, they build up your immunity. It just doesn’t make sense to use sanitizers instead of soap and water.”

Grotke’s concerns are echoed in the “hygiene hypothesis,” a school of thought that argues society has actually become too “clean” for its own good. That between our designer germ-killing gels, antimicrobial subway gloves and ubiquitous disinfecting wipes, we’ve basically jumped the germ shark and undermined our immune systems.

“Your immune system is like a prizefighter,” says Scott Johnson, a former EMT from Woodstock, Georgia, who uses soap and water and hand sanitizer but stops short of what he calls germ-fighting “paranoia.” “If it’s not working out and sparring and keeping in shape, the skills are going to atrophy and it’s going to become weak.”

But becoming “too clean” is not something Beth Devereaux worries about.  

“I am a hand-washing commando,” says the 40-year-old third and fourth grade school teacher from Seattle. “Anytime there’s a sneeze in the classroom, someone’s going to have to go wash their hands with soap and water.”

Devereaux says she teaches her students to wash their hands every day before lunch and every time they use the bathroom and has them regularly wipe down their tables with bleach wipes, especially during flu season. She also keeps the classroom stocked with plenty of tissue and hand sanitizer and says her germ-busting routine has resulted in less illness for herself and for her students. What’s more, her students like it.

“The kids think it’s cool to have their own little bottles of Purell,” she says.

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."

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