Keeping it clean

What is it with Americans and hand sanitizer?

Until this year, I thought hand sanitizer had its place: at a festival with Portaloos, or a beach, or in the middle of the countryside – anywhere without, you know, modern plumbing where you might have got all kinds of things on your skin and then want to eat your sandwiches. But since smearing alcohol-based gel all over your hands seems a) much less effective than actually washing them in a sink and b) surely calculated to play havoc with your skin, I assumed you would never resort to using it in other circumstances.

Three encounters have changed my mind.  Temping the other week in a job that involved handling students’ ID passes I noticed that both my fellow temps had these little bottles of hand sanitizer that they periodically used to clean their hands.  There was a normal ladies’ loo down the corridor that we could freely access, and the students didn’t seem to be covered in filth, so I initially put it down to personal neurosis. I had previously come across secretarial hygiene neurosis in a temp job back in April where a woman repeatedly lectured me on how I must only flush the toilet, ever, with the lid down, or risk spreading germs everywhere. If I forgot, she sneaked up to my desk and asked if I was responsible for the latest transgression.

Then the other day at the hairdresser I was reading one of those features on what celebrities carry in their handbags in a gossip magazine. And this ‘celebrity’ – whose name escapes me since I had never previously heard of her – said ‘hand sanitizer is a must because I have to shake so many hands’.  Ugh. Those dirty, dirty fans’ hands from which I must protect myself.

But the final straw was at our first hospital class on caring for a newborn baby. The nurse instructor said, in all seriousness: ‘Never touch your baby unless you know you have clean hands. Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer with you at all times, and just rub a little on before you touch her, to prevent the spread of disease.’ It was a slightly strange class: we spent a lot of time learning how to make circumcision dressings with exactly the right amount of Vaseline, and the instructor was fond of gnomic utterances such as ‘all kinds of things are small objects’. But even so the idea that I would sanitize my hands every time I went to touch my baby struck me as pretty extreme. Does she think we all live in cattle sheds where we smear ourselves in excrement every thirty seconds? Just how dirty are our hands supposed to be, and how realistic is it, anyway, to insulate a baby from all bacteria and viruses?

For all I know hand sanitizing is all the rage in Britain, too. Maybe I’m just behind the curve. But in my mind it’s associated with the bits of American culture I like least: the purchasing of organic food air-freighted from Europe or South America, because my body is a temple, but I don’t give a shit about the rest of the planet; or the enthusiasm Evanston cyclists have for riding on the pavement beside quiet suburban streets and yelling at pedestrians to get out of their way while clothed in a cycle helmet and full lycra gear. No man is an island, and we were not born to live separated from one another by seas of alcohol sanitizer gel.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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7 Responses to Keeping it clean

  1. Expat Mum says:

    I think if you worked with kids you’d be a hand-santizing person. First week back at school and two of my kids are sick. I don’t know how the teachers make it through the year to be honest. And if you notice, most doctors wash their hands as soon as they come into the room, before they even touch you.
    Here in Chicago we have hand-sanitizer stuff everywhere, especially in the winter. There’s nothing worse than being cooped inside for 5 miserable, sub-zero months. Everyone gets sick and it’s only because of the germs that are being passed around.

    • I can see people like doctors need to clean their hands in between examining ill bodies. But for the rest of us I feel washing hands after going to the toilet/ changing a nappy and before eating has got to be enough. In particular it seems to me that within the home it’s easiest and nicest to accept that you’ll probably all catch each other’s diseases, and kiss and cuddle away with no regard for the (viral) consequences.

  2. AHLondon says:

    Sceptic, go with your instincts. You are not in the medical or childcare professions. Hand sanitizer is overkill.

  3. The Dave says:

    Mark my words, there will be a backlash one day, when folks finally realise that some contact with grime and low-level disease is actually rather good for you, helping to educate your immune system. When ‘extreme sanitation’ leads to everyone having weakened immune responses and being susceptible to anything going, there will be a moment when the word “D’oh!” will be said by so many people at once that it will be audible from Mars. 😉

  4. AHLondon says:

    Dude, that time is already here. Sure some are still in denial and haven’t “Doh!ed” but docs are performing experiments to confirm that over cleanliness is part of the cause of the increase in asthma cases, same for allergens. My SiL and I have an inside joke about those covers for grocery carts (Sceptic, if you don’t know, just wait). Whenever we see a kid in those, we know he’s always sick. So far, ancedotally at least, its holding true.

  5. Iota says:

    I made the mistake of eating something after using hand sanitizer, and of course it tasted disgusting. We may be killing the germs, but aren’t we introducing lots of horrible chemicals into our lives? It’s only a matter of time before they discover that they give you cancer or heart disease or neurological upsets of various kinds. Then we’ll have to choose between the viruses and germs, or the illness-provoking chemicals.

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