I deal with a lot of germs in my job as an EMT, so I probably spend more time than the average person does thinking about how to effectively clean my hands. Hospitals, nursing homes, and clinics all have hand sanitizer units on the walls and sitting out on counters, so that you can’t go more than 10 feet without being reminded to clean your hands. Many have hand washing sinks out in the halls, and of course they all have restrooms, too. Which begs the question:
Which is better? Washing your hands or using sanitizer?
Studies have overwhelmingly shown that washing your hands with warm water and soap for at least 30 seconds is best. Hand sanitizer should be used only when handwashing is not an option. Why? The physical act of rinsing your hands actually does a lot more than you’d think! It washes away visible dirt and many germs, and soap removes the last of the microscopic germs invisible to the naked eye. Hand sanitizer only kills germs; it doesn’t remove the layers of grime and dirt on hands.
Plain old soap and water really is best! Antibacterial soap has been shown to kill only a little more bacteria while significantly increasing the risk of creating “superbugs,” bacteria and viruses that are more resistant to treatment.
Look for hand sanitizer with a high alcohol content, around 60%. Again, use it only when you can’t wash your hands, like on the subway, or when the water source may be contaminated. But even mildly contaminated water can be used to rinse off visibly dirty hands, as long as you don’t have open cuts or sores, and follow up with sanitizer.
How to Wash Your Hands Effectively
I know it seems a simple task, but Occupational Health experts have come up with guidelines for handwashing that ensure maximum germ-killing. It helps to sing a song to yourself to time yourself as you wash, to make sure you hit that 30 second minimum. You can always sing 30 seconds of your favorite song (Metallica, Jewel, Sinatra, whatever), if that makes you happy!