Kill Bacteria and Get More Powder Days

Post by blogger | November 5, 2010      

It is a known fact that heavy exercise reduces your resistance to colds and flu for a period after your workout. Problem is, that’s when you leave the crisp clean backcountry and dive into a bar or eatery where you surround yourself with human petri dishes. Another fact: most colds and flu are transmitted by your hands.

I used to have a huge problem with this. Every winter I’d get into great shape — then the viruses would hit. A couple of colds, perhaps the flu, and a whole month or more of the best backcountry powder skiing would be down the tubes. Sometimes I’d end up having to travel while sick, or worse, having to to get out on skis and participate in industry events while feeling no better than a dog coughing up a hairball.

But all that has changed, and I attribute 90% of my nearly cold and flu free life to the use of hand sanitizers. But which one works? And what about bacteria becoming resistant to sanitizers?

Hand sanitizer for backcountry skiing.

Hand sanitizers, Benzalkonium chloride (BC) to left, triclosan based solution in middle, 62% alcohol to right.

Here is what I’ve found out, and how I use the stuff to keep backcountry skiing instead of slurping chicken soup and watching my DVD collection for the 50th time.

Most hand sanitizers use one of three chemicals: Alcohol, triclosan, or Benzalkonium Chloride (BC). Bacteria and viruses can be resistant to triclosan or BC, but either chemical is still adequately effective for consumer use, as far as I can tell from my research and based on personal experience. Alcohol is the most toxic to bugs — nearly all bacteria and viruses can’t resist dying when they contact it, and most will never develop resistance to the correct concentration. (More here about pathogen resistance.)

Problem is, alcohol based hand sanitizers don’t persist on your skin, and thus need to be used after every contact, or at least super regularly when you’re in a public place. More, even alcohol based compounds that include lotion may dry your hands out to the point of painful cracking. Triclosan and BC based sanitizers build up on your skin and provide ongoing protection even without constant use, and they don’t dry out your skin any more than hand washing. Triclosan is questionable as something you want on your skin or transferred into your body from hand contact with your food, while normal use amounts of BC appear to be totally non-toxic and non-carcinogenic.

My strategy with hand sanitizers, which appears to work, is to use both alcohol and BC based products (as well as old fashioned hand washing several times a day). While traveling or at trade shows, parties or the gym I use the benzalkonium since in those situations I’d have to be applying alcohol every few minutes for it to be reliable. When things slow down, such as during road trips, I use the alcohol based stuff after things such as gasoline stops. Triclosan based sanitizer is too suspect for my taste, so I use it when I can’t find the BC based stuff, but avoid it when I can.

I’m not that fastidious of a person, but I did get tired of being sick for weeks every winter. Not saying that can’t happen again, but I’ve had the healthiest winters of my life over the last few years when I’ve been conscientiously using hand sanitizer.

If you’re shopping, remember that alcohol based sanitizers need at least a 60% concentration. Benzalkonium is effective at much smaller concentrations. Compounds with hand lotion may make your hands sticky, so experiment with different products.

Folks made fun of me for covering snow tires on a backcountry skiing blog. Now, hand sanitizer. Your opinions oh esteemed WildSnowers?


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20 Responses to “Kill Bacteria and Get More Powder Days”

  1. Chuck November 5th, 2010 9:32 am

    Covering all the bases there Lou, Love it!

  2. Castlerock (Mike) November 5th, 2010 11:15 am

    I learned something that I will use…..again…….That is why this blog is in my RSS and I jump when I see a fresh post. Now we just need some cold (temp not virus) here in the East.

  3. tyler November 5th, 2010 11:16 am

    Lou, What is your remedy for little kid fingers that get poked in parent’s eyes and mouth after coming home from day care? 😉 I think I spend a third of my year with some sickness or another.

    Glad you have found your cure!

  4. Dostie November 5th, 2010 12:14 pm

    Regular doses of garlic taken internally seem to keep most bugs at bay. Plus vitamins and regular workouts to maintain the immune system. Keep my hands dirty so the bacteria sticks to it, not my skin, and I wash it off regularly but once a week. 😉

  5. Steve November 5th, 2010 1:48 pm

    Hand sanitisers don’t work on spores from the gram positive bacteria that cause problems in our gastrointestinal system.

    I think people sometimes (falsely) see hand sanitisers as an alternative to washing their hands after visiting the toilet. Washing (and drying) your hand properly after visiting the toilet is the only effective way to avoid picking up a stomach bug.

  6. SquakMtn November 5th, 2010 6:33 pm

    Thanks for the tip Lou. I would add that hand sanitizers are a “Mega Must” for hut trips. I have managed to avoid catching the cold brought by a hut mate through fastidiousness and use of hand sanitizer. And if you are at a hut with limited/no running water, sanitizer prevents “hut gut” 😯

  7. Johnny November 5th, 2010 8:02 pm

    So, you’re the guy i saw handing money to a clerk in a convenience
    store using an avy probe….

  8. Bar Barrique November 5th, 2010 9:54 pm

    Sorry but you’re way out of line with the hand sanitizer blog.
    Keep up the good work. It’s a nice alternative to endless industry hype.

  9. Ptor November 6th, 2010 1:06 am

    Washing the inside of your nose regularly is actually the crucial move because despite hand transmission, that’s where the flu bugs incubate and begin to enter the body. Regular soap is good enough I figure and those hand sanitizers are actually toxic over prolonged use. Aside from that, vitamin D as a supplement is the bomb to not get sick. And staying out of bars…
    What actually works incredibly well too for prevention is a mixture of essential oils called thieves which was used by grave robbing thieves during the times of the plague so they would not get infected. It worked and still does.
    My pet peeve is people that are sick and don’t stay home and take care of themselves.

  10. Lou November 6th, 2010 7:11 am

    Johnny, LOL.

  11. Lou November 6th, 2010 8:03 am

    I added a Fitness & Health category, we’ll see if we can whip up more blog posts under that subject. Perhaps I can get some guest blogs from some of the rando racers out there, and some “everyman” stuff would be good as well.

  12. Mark November 6th, 2010 1:20 pm

    I haven’t had the flu and fewer colds since I started getting a flu shot every fall.

  13. olddude November 6th, 2010 3:42 pm

    Not constantly being around the plague rats called children is a cornerstone of staying healthy.

  14. Mark November 6th, 2010 11:03 pm

    Old fashioned hand washing is still generally considered one of the best ways to keep from getting ill. One of my personal pet peeves is watching someone leave a public bathroom having not washed his hands. By the way, last winter my whole family caught H1N1 flu, and it was not death’s dark shadow cast by the grim reaper as some have reported/experienced. Oh, and triclosan is in many, if not most, deodorants and anti-perspirants. Makes my armpits itch!

  15. Jasin November 7th, 2010 12:12 pm

    I used to get upper respiratory infections that would take me down for big chunks of the season like you’re talking about. Three and a half years ago got my septum straightened out surgically, turns out I broke my nose as a kid and had been living with a messed up airway for 40 years. So now instead of a couple times a year, I get a bad cold once every two or three years and it only takes me out for two weeks max instead of a whole month like you’re talking about.

    Answer to the anti-spam… We ski on the cryosphere.

  16. scree November 9th, 2010 10:20 am

    Lou said;
    “I added a Fitness & Health category, we’ll see if we can whip up more blog posts under that subject. Perhaps I can get some guest blogs from some of the rando racers out there, and some “everyman” stuff would be good as well.”

    YES! It is real hard to find any info. on rando race training. Don’t you live in the heart of Rando race geekdom? I’m all ears if you care to blog lots more about fitness/training.

  17. bogon November 9th, 2010 11:10 pm

    Jasin, you’ve made me think. I’m having this problem, too (broke my nose playing at hurricane-uprooted tree when i was kid). Sometimes my nose works as it should, sometimes i can feel the difference in airflow between left and right nostril (and vice versa)… and i do pick up a flu almost every autumn + early spring, despite all the measures.

    I wonder can it be reliably fixed here in .ua (third world, yeah) and how much does it cost. How much have you paid and how long was the procedure?

  18. Jonathan Shefftz January 12th, 2011 12:56 pm

    Flight home Sunday night was delayed so awoke Monday morning on less than six hours sleep to an infant daughter with fever and runny nose. First northeast rando race of the year is this coming Monday. Thinking about filling up an entire bathtub with hand sanitizer and jumping in there after every contact with her (which seems like every several minutes during the day since she loves to be held, and pretty much every hour during the night since she feeds even more).

  19. Lou August 27th, 2011 6:30 am

    Jonathan, the years with the child in the house, you might as well resign yourself to serial respiratory infections. Bright side is everyone is building up their resistance, and the illness free years will eventually ensue. Even so, keep the hand san’ on hand and use religiously, you’ll still end up with fewer sick days.

  20. steveG August 27th, 2011 10:26 am

    Good luck with that Jonathan. My daughter and I are genetically very similar and I sense that you and the tot are too. If my daughter got a cold/flu, I had it before she knew she did. With my son it was another story.

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