New research out of the University of Virginia finds that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are of no particular use in warding off the flu. They also failed to ward off rhinovirus, a major cause of the common cold.

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LOS ANGELES — If the presence of all those alcohol-based hand sanitizers makes you feel safe from disease, read no further.

The sanitizers — Purell, Germ-X and the like — started popping up everywhere last year after the outbreak of the H1N1 “swine flu” virus. But new research out of the University of Virginia finds that they are of no particular use in warding off the flu. They also failed to ward off rhinovirus, a major cause of the common cold.

The researchers, led by Dr. Ronald Turner, tested the sanitizers in real-world conditions. They asked 116 volunteers to carry around a sanitizer with “enhanced antiviral activity” and use it every three hours while they were awake. Another group of 96 volunteers followed their usual routines.

Researchers tracked them for 10 weeks, collecting specimens once a week to test for flu and rhinovirus. Additional samples were taken whenever a study participant complained of cold or flu-like symptoms.

It turned out that sanitizer users developed 12 flu infections per 100 volunteers, compared with 15 cases of flu per 100 volunteers in the group that didn’t do anything special. In addition, there were 42 cases of rhinovirus per 100 volunteers among the sanitizer users, versus 51 for the control group. Neither difference was statistically significant.

The researchers surmise that hand transmission is less important for these viruses than previously thought. Perhaps public-health officials should pay more attention to how these viruses spread through the air, they said.

Previously, Turner and colleagues had established that alcohol-based sanitizers removed rhinovirus from hands better than soap and water.

The results were presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in Boston. The study was funded by the Dial Corp., which makes hand sanitizers and old-school soap.

Americans washing hands more often

Researchers at the Boston conference also reported that Americans are washing their hands more often. Checks in four big cities last month found 85 percent of public-restroom users washing their hands, up from 77 percent in 2007. It’s the best rate since these periodic surveys began in 1996.

One thing hasn’t changed: Men are still dirtier. About 23 percent of men failed to wash versus 7 percent of women.

Microbiologist Judy Daly of Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City led the project for the American Society for Microbiology and the American Cleaning Institute, formerly known as the Soap and Detergent Association.

Researchers from Harris Interactive combed their hair or pretended to put on makeup while watching more than 6,000 adults using restrooms at Turner Field ballpark in Atlanta, the Museum of Science and Industry and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal in New York City and the Ferry Terminal Farmers Market in San Francisco.

The Associated Press