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Hand Sanitizing vs. Hand Washing—Which Should You be Practicing?

Hand sanitizer bottle on table

Understanding proper hand hygiene is an important part of staying healthy and safe during any cold and flu season. With the wide spread of germs and viruses, knowing how to practice the correct methods can help keep these germs at bay and prevent you and your loved ones from getting sick. Below, we cover when it’s safe to use hand sanitizer versus when it’s advisable to wash your hands to keep you well informed and prepared this season.

Hand Sanitizer or Soap and Water?

We’ve all been there in the past—you’re out and about and have spent the day touching door handles, train and bus rails, and shaking hands with folks but you haven’t had the time to go wash your hands. Luckily, you might carry around a small squeeze bottle of hand sanitizer as your quick fix for this situation. But, does using hand sanitizer exempt you from washing your hands after touching surfaces? The short answer—not really.

According to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC), using hand sanitizer, while handy and somewhat effective, doesn’t necessarily kill all of the germs on your hands.i While “alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations…sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs.” ii It is easy to use alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain less than 60% alcohol, insufficient quantity of hand sanitizer, or to wipe it off before it’s dry, making it less effective. As such, while hand sanitizer can be effective in settings where people come in contact with germs, but do not have heavily soiled hands, your best bet to effectively remove germs from dirty hands in most situations is to wash with soap and water.iii

With this in mind, here’s what we recommend when it comes to hand sanitizer vs. hand washing:

• If you don’t have access to soap and water, but have come into contact with germs, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with an alcohol concentration between 60-95% is recommended.iv Then, wash with soap and water as soon as you can after that. Be sure to read the product label to understand proper application.
• Washing hands with soap and water is more effective than hand sanitizers when it comes to removing a larger variety of germs. If your hands show signs of being greasy or soiled, washing with soap and water for the recommended 20 seconds is your safest bet. iv - v

Understanding the pros and cons of when to grab for your hand sanitizer in your bag versus knowing when it’s time to head to the bathroom to wash your hands with soap and water can be a crucial step in stopping the spread of germs this season. For more articles like this and additional health-related articles such as cold myths, learn how long a cold is contagious and how to limit the spread of germs at home.

Sources:
i. – iv. When and How to Wash Your Hands. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html. Accessed 5.1.2020.
v. Show Me the Science—When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html. Accessed 5.1.2020.
 

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