Hand Washing Vs. Sanitizer

Good House

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!

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4 thoughts on “Hand Washing Vs. Sanitizer

  1. Do hand sanitizers help protect at all against viruses (common cold, flu, etc) or just bacteria?

  2. Great question! “Germs” is a general term that usually refers to both bacteria and viruses. Most hand sanitizers, at least those with a high alcohol content, kill most kinds of bacteria and many but not all viruses, most notably many strains of the common cold and flu. Just as with washing your hands, time is a key component. When using sanitizer, use the recommended amount, and rub thoroughly into skin until completely absorbed, usually 10-30 seconds. The alcohol content should match your needs. According to the CDC, “the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)recommends a concentration of 60% to 95% ethanol or isopropanol, the concentration range of greatest germicidal efficacy.”

    But nothing is perfect, and there will be some germs (again, both bacteria and viruses) that survive, so be mindful of what you touch, and don’t put your fingers in your mouth or on your face too often.

  3. You mention something important, which I don’t want others to gloss over. Antibacterial soaps only do very slightly better than the regular stuff. Actually, the only reason to use an “antibacterial” soap is for people who wash their hands for less than the recommended 30sec or so. Then the agent does help, otherwise just use a normal soap. I generally prefer the non-antibacterial ones myself.

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