Is hand sanitizer as effective as, or superior to, washing your hands the old fashioned way with soap and water? The answer to that popular question is: it depends.
Let’s begin with clarifying the functionality of hand soap, compared to that of hand sanitizer. The primary purpose of hand soap is to remove germs and bacteria, not kill it. When washing your hands with soap, dirt and germs trapped in the natural oils of the skin are lifted and suspended in water.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizer, on the other hand, is proven to kill viruses and bacteria. The alcohol kills the bacteria by softening the bacterial membrane, allowing the alcohol to render bacteria ineffective.
When Is Hand Sanitizer the Preferred Choice?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol-based hand sanitizer is recommended as an acceptable alternative to soap and water in hospital and clinic-like settings because healthcare professionals often perform duties in sterile settings and are required to clean their hands constantly throughout day.
When Is Washing With Soap & Water the Preferred Choice?
In other situations, soap and water is the recommended choice. For example, the CDC suggests washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water after using the bathroom because your hands may become contaminated with fecal microorganisms, and soap is designed to effectively remove those contaminants.
Another example of when soap and water is the superior hand hygiene choice is for the food service industry. People working in the food industry often have proteins and other fatty ingredients on their hands, which decrease the ability of antibacterial hand gels to adequately kill bacteria.
With soap and water, technique is very important. The vast majority of people do not wash their hands as thoroughly as they should. It is recommended to scrub your hands for a full 20 seconds, which can feel longer than you might think. One good way to go about it is to sing the ABC’s in your head. Here is a helpful hand washing tutorial.
You will undoubtedly come across situations where soap and water is the ideal solution, but it isn’t readily available. In these situations, it is better to use hand sanitizer than nothing at all.
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