Hand sanitizers, while touted as the next best thing when hand washing is not an option, are a sticky situation. Many schools have banned the use of alcohol-based products, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) still promotes their use.

“The Federal Department of Agriculture and the CDC recommend alcohol-based sanitizers with a minimum alcohol content of 60 percent,” says Mark Bishop, Mark Bishop, vice president of policy and communications with the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign.

There are non-alcohol based products that can be effective, says Steven Brescia, owner of Pure Environment Maintenance Inc., Yonkers, N.Y. These products typically contain the germ-killing, organic agent benzalkonium chloride, used in eye drops and nasal sprays, which, like alcohol, has an efficacy of nearly 100 percent. He says these hand sanitizers remain on hands longer and are easier on children’s sensitive skin.

Bishop cautions that while many good non-alcohol hand sanitizers are available, they have not been approved or recommended by the FDA or the CDC, and should be avoided until they are.

Using hand lotions along with hand sanitizers can combat the less comfortable issues arising from alcohol-based products. Limiting hand sanitizer use also can reduce the drying affects of alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

“Hand sanitizers should be an option that is used only in situations where hand washing is not available,” Bishop says.

The Washington, D.C.-based American Cleaning Institute’s (ACI) “Healthy Schools, Healthy People” program does much to promote hand washing within schools. Nancy Bock, vice president of consumer education, says the campaign recommends placing hand sanitizers in locations that provide ready access, with adequate supervision. These areas include cafeteria lines and gymnasiums, as well as school entrances and exits.

“It’s nice to have hand sanitizer at building entrances,” agrees Brescia. “People will use it at these points.”

Wherever hand sanitizer stations are placed, it’s critical that adults supervise their use, Bishop says.

“The concern with alcohol-based products in schools lies with its flammability and risk of inhalation. There is the capacity to abuse hand sanitizers and hand sanitizing stations,” he says. “There have been cases of kids taking the dispensers and throwing them and that becomes a risk. Oversight is necessary because there are physical and environmental risks to hand sanitizers.”

While proper soap and hand sanitizer selection is important, it means little if the student population doesn’t use the products.

“You can’t just think about hand washing during an outbreak,” Bock says. “It needs to be part of the routine business of the school, every day that school is in session.”

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.