Hand sanitizer pumps, stations and wipes are everywhere: grocery stores, malls, schools, churches and yes, doctors' offices. Keeping our hands clean helps prevent the spread of disease, but are hand sanitizers a good substitute for washing hands with good old soap and water? Read on to learn why relying on hand sanitizers to keep hands clean may not be your best strategy.
Hand Sanitizer Doesn't Work as Well as Soap and Water
We all know handwashing is important. It's the best way to avoid getting sick. But does hand sanitizer do just as good of a job as lathering up?
Turns out, the soap industry doesn't have anything to worry about: washing your hands the traditional way is far superior to using hand sanitizer. Soap lifts dirt, germs and oil off grimy hands to give you a better, overall cleansing. Soap and water are more proven to be more effective than hand sanitizers at removing certain kinds of germs, like norovirus and c. diff. (clostridium difficile). And unlike hand sanitizer, soap also can eliminate pesticides and other chemical residues that are lingering on your hands.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevent suggests tips on washing your hands the right way:
- Wet your hands with clean running water and apply soap to a lather
- Scrub all surfaces: palms, backs, fingers, between fingers, under nails
- Scrub for 20 seconds (that's the time it takes to sing 'Happy Birthday" twice)
- Rinse under clean, running water, dry hands with clean towel or air dry
Daily Hand Sanitizer Use May Be Harmful
This spring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a final ruling on the use of certain products in hand sanitizers. People are using hand sanitizer on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day, so the FDA has decided that the companies making hand sanitizers need to provide proof that those chemicals are safe for that level of exposure, especially for pregnant women and children. Three active ingredients—benzalkonium chloride, ethyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol—are still under review.
Additionally, there are concerns that using antibacterial hand sanitizers and soaps – like those that include bacteria-killing chemicals like triclosan – can contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Hand Sanitizer Won't Kill Germs
According to a new study, quickly smearing an ethanol-based hand sanitizer onto your hands won't kill cold and flu bugs. This is because your fingers are still wet with mucus.
Hand Sanitizer Offers a Short-Term Solution
If you don't have access to soap and water, hand sanitizer is a good temporary stand-in. Make sure you use one that has at least 60 percent alcohol. While it won't make grubby hands feel fresh, a hand sanitizer with a high level of alcohol can effectively kill bacteria and viruses. Alcohol-free sanitizers may not work as well and the chemicals they use could irritate your skin even more than their alcohol-containing counterparts.
The Bottom Line: Simple Measures Work Best
If you wash your hands often with regular soap and water, use hand sanitizers sparingly, and get a flu shot, you might not need to stock up on tissue this cold and flu season. Have friends that swear by hand sanitizer? Share this story with them on social media.