Research suggests that your handy Purell might be losing its power over one type of bacteria.

By Renee Cherry
Updated: August 03, 2018
Photo: smartstock / Getty Images

Hand sanitizer is worth its weight in gold in some situations. Suffocating subway ride? NBD. Cold and flu season? Guard your sick days. Porta-potty visit? You can thank the germ-killing gods. Thing is, as convenient as your favorite scented hand sanitizer is, it might not be as perfect at disinfecting as you'd like it to be. In fact, one type of bacteria seems to be adapting to alcohol-based hand washes, according to a new study published in the journal Science Transitional Medicine. (Related: Is Hand Sanitizer Bad for Your Skin?)

Since hand sanitizers are such a mainstay at hospitals-seriously, there's a Purell hand sanitizer dispenser at every turn-researchers set out to discover whether alcohol is effective in killing Enterococcus faecium, a type of bacteria that's multidrug-resistant. E. faecium is a bacterium that naturally occurs in your GI tract, but it can cause infections if it spreads to other parts of your body. In recent years, infections from E. faecium have been on the rise in the U.S. For the study, researchers added alcohol solutions to samples of E. faecium obtained from hospitals between 1997 and 2015. They found that samples from after 2010 were 10 times more tolerant of alcohol, which suggests that E. faecium is becoming more and more tolerant of alcohol over time. (Related: A Sneaky Downside to Washing Your Hands)

This study doesn't mean you should part ways with hand sani. The study looked at one particular type of bacteria. And to be fair, hand sanitizer companies don't claim to be perfect. (For example, Purell Advanced Hand Sanitizer and Germ-X foaming Hand Sanitizer both advertise to kill 99.99 percent of germs). But the study highlights that you should also plan on washing with good ol' soap and water. The CDC considers scrubbing with soap and water the best way to wash your hands, and recommends using hand sanitizer when necessary (though it's also pointed out that alcohol-based hand wash has been shown to be more effective than regular soap in killing rotavirus).

"Hand sanitizers may not be as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy," the CDC warns on its site. "Furthermore, hand sanitizers might not remove harmful chemicals like pesticides and heavy metals from hands." Bottom line, hand sanitizer is probably still a good idea-just don't let it replace regular washing, especially if you're spending time in a hospital.

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