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A discussion of water and soap washing versus waterless alcohol-based cleansers
(and a side discussion of moisturizers)

The short story:
Non-water alcohol cleansers (Purell and the like): use it.
Moisurizers and lip balm: use them
Soap and water: when available use them -- and wash hands for two minutes at least.
On walks and camping: take more care rather than less to stay clean.

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When walking for a long day before returning to civilization or — more extreme — hiking for days between hot showers, it behooves us to investigate the controversy surrounding alcohol-based cleansers.

I have argued with fellow campers who discredit thsese non-water cleansers. But what is there to do if no water is around and you need to clean your hands before cooking, after crapping, or whenever you get into a dirty situation?

Sometimes the common camp culture takes a "what the hell, I'm camping" course, inviting campers to take a hygenic holiday when in the bush or away from convenient washrooms.

This is a mistake. If anything, walkers, campers etc. should be more careful to keep themselves clean. There's nothing worse than getting sick when it may take hours or even days days to get back to civilization.

The short answer, then is: carry an alcohol-based cleanser with between 50 and 70 per cent alcohol when there's no easy water source about. It does the job. Read this abstract from a medical study for a brief proof.

My hygenic hand rub of choice is Purell. Here's a study, perhaps somewhat biased as it comes from Purell, but the lab returns are interesting. Basically, Purell conforms to the "European Norm 1500," which sets levels of  effectiveness for waterless hand rubs. One of the worries about using alcohol as a cleanser is that it can dry skin out. Purell has hand moisurizers; according to the study linked above, their product does not significantly dry out skin.

Despite this, a skin moisurizer should also be carried. Just as lip balm is needed for hot and cold days, moisturizers are necessary. Forget them at your peril, especially if you are over 40. I'm writing this in January; earlier today I walked in extremely cold weather, then ignored the messages my hands were sending me once back in the warm. I am now slathering the backs of my hand with moisturizer to fend of the rawness. A little bit of caution earlier could have prevented this.

The Europeans generally have been more enthusiastic about waterless cleansers than North Americans until relatively recently. A report from an Oxford Clinal Journal called Clinical Infectious Diseases,  titled "Replace Hand Washing with Use of a Waterless Alcohol Hand Rub?" discusses hospital uses of soaps and waterless alcohol hand rubs, but it makes some good points for general users.

In the Oxford study, one reason cited for switching from water and soap handwashing to waterless cleansers in a hospital is that there is more hand-washing compliance. And if doctors and nurses who should know better avoid hand washing, I'm guessing walkers and campers would make out even worse.

Hand washing with water and soap take time. Any less than 15 seconds is almost pointless. Some studies suggest two to three minutes for washing to be effective. Waterless alcohol cleansers can do the job in 15 to 30 seconds.

Walkers particularly don't have basins to draw water from a lake and environmental concerns (and often cold water!) prohibit washing in a lake.

The Oxford article also makes the point that a lot of bacteria hangs around fingernails, so thorough washing of the ends of one's fingers is a good thing.

The other point several articles make (including the Oxford article) is that waterless cleansers do not get rid of grime. That means that good old soap and water still has a big place in camping cleanliness and in longer walks. Don't throw away the soap bar yet.

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Page created: January 4, 2013