News Details

Health Update: Hand-Washing Versus Hand Sanitizers - Which is The Better Choice

Health Update: Hand-Washing Versus Hand Sanitizers - Which is The Better Choice

Germs are everywhere! They can get onto your hands and reside on items we touch during daily activities and can make you ill. Cleaning hands at key times with soap and water or hand sanitizer is one of the most significant steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to those around you. However, there are fundamental differences between washing hands with soap and water and cleaning them with hand sanitizer.

Experts advise that proper hand-washing with soap and water is one of the best ways to protect yourself during the cold and flu season. As you wash, scrubbing helps to release all the dirt and germ particles from the surface of the skin. The germs get bound up in the soap lather so when you rinse, all the germs and debris get washed away. For proper handwashing, wet your hands with water, add soap, cover all surfaces, and rub vigorously for about 20 seconds. The water temperature doesn't really matter. It's the length of time you spend scrubbing and rinsing off appropriately that are significant.

If you're in a setting where hand-washing isn't possible, use a hand sanitizer with an alcohol content of 60% to 95%; however be aware it's not quite as effective as soap and water. You can keep hand sanitizers in places like your car, book bag or desk, but because they're alcohol-based, you should always store them out of the reach of children. Keep in mind, it's important to remember that hand sanitizers do not replace proper hand-washing. While most hand sanitizers claim that they kill 99% of bacteria and germs, some germs are resistant. Some sanitizers are ineffective against norovirus and some health care-related bacteria. For instance, alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t kill some parasites, and Clostridium difficile, which causes severe diarrhea. Additionally, hand sanitizers also may not remove harmful chemicals, such as pesticides and heavy metals like lead. However, handwashing reduces the amounts of all types of germs, pesticides, and metals on hands.

Multitudes of studies demonstrate that hand sanitizers work well in clinical settings like hospitals and doctors offices, where hands come into contact with germs but usually are not heavily soiled or greasy. Some data also show that hand sanitizers may work effectively against certain types of germs on slightly soiled hands. However, hands may become extremely greasy or soiled in community settings, such as after people handle food, play sports, work in the garden, or go camping or fishing. When hands are heavily soiled or greasy, hand sanitizers may not work as well. Handwashing with soap and water is recommended in such situations.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends washing hands with soap and water whenever possible since handwashing reduces the amounts of all types of germs and chemicals on hands. But if soap and water are not available, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. This guidance for effective handwashing and use of hand sanitizer in community settings was developed based on data from a number of research studies. Knowing when and how to clean your hands and which method to use will give you the best opportunity to preventing illness.

When to Use

Soap and Water

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is ill
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the bathroom, changing diapers, or cleaning up a child who has used the bathroom
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal food or treats, animal cages, or animal waste
  • After touching garbage
  • If your hands are visibly dirty or greasy

Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer

  • Before and after visiting a friend or family member in a hospital or nursing home, unless the person is sick with Clostridium difficile (if so, use soap and water to wash hands).
  • If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, and wash with soap and water as soon as you can.
  • Do NOT use hand sanitizer if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy: for example, after gardening, playing outdoors, or after fishing or camping (unless a handwashing station is not available). Wash your hands with soap and water instead.

How to Use

Soap and Water

  • Wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap.
  • Scrub all surfaces of your hands, including the palms, backs, fingers, between your fingers, and under your nails. Keep scrubbing for 20 seconds. Need a time frame? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
  • Rinse your hands under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer

Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Supervise young children when they use hand sanitizer to prevent swallowing alcohol, especially in schools and childcare facilities.

  • Apply. Put enough sanitizer on hands to cover all surfaces.
  • Rub hands together, until hands feel dry. This should take around 20 seconds. Do not rinse or wipe off the hand sanitizer before its dry; if you do, it may not work as well against germs.