Is Hand Sanitizer as Effective as Washing Your Hands?

Hand hygiene is of critical importance to healthcare professionals and anyone who regularly comes in contact with others in community settings. Even teachers and police officers need to keep their hands clean to protect themselves and the people they serve.

When someone is outside or far from a sink, they often use hand sanitizer to eliminate as many germs as possible. Although handwashing is optimal for removing pathogens and dirt, hand sanitizer is an effective substitute when the primary goal is to prevent the spread of disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a strong hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol for situations when soap and water are not available. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers have been proven to be effective and safe for use in everyday life.

General Sanitation

Both antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer are highly effective at killing bacteria and viruses. Handwashing with soap kills bacteria and viruses and physically removes them from your hands when you work the soap into a lather.

Hand sanitizer does not physically remove dirt or bacteria from your hands, but it does kill them. Although hand sanitizer does not usually directly kill viruses, it strips them of their protective membrane, causing them to die off quickly.

At least one study showed that hand sanitizer may be better than handwashing for killing certain bacteria, including fecal streptococci. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC recommended alcohol-based hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol content as an option for slowing the spread of the virus but acknowledged that handwashing was usually a better option. More research is needed to confirm the full potential of hand sanitizers.

Removing Dirt and Grime

Hand sanitizer is designed to kill germs and bacteria without rinsing. Because it does not rinse the hands, dirt, grime, and chemicals may remain on the skin after using hand sanitizer. You may even notice darker areas in the wrinkles on your fingers and palms.

Because of this, it’s critical to wash your hands with soap and water after exposure to dirt, bodily fluids, chemicals, dust, and other contaminants. Applying soap helps cut through the dirt and oil that are clinging to your skin.

Keep in mind that using hand sanitizer on your hands and then wiping them on a towel is still not a substitute for soap and water. This may wipe some of the dirt away but will not thoroughly wash it away.

liquid hand sanitizer

When to Use Hand Sanitizer

Hand sanitizer is an appropriate substitute when driving, working outdoors, in classrooms without sinks, or other waterless environments. As long as the user rubs it into every part of each hand, it will kill bacteria and viruses with a high level of effectiveness.

Healthcare workers should be able to wash their hands with soap frequently when they are working in hospitals and clinics. However, some older schools and field hospitals, especially emergency treatment tents set up during the COVID-19 pandemic, do not have as many sinks available. In these cases, hand sanitizer in conjunction with proper glove usage should be enough to protect against pathogens.

Making the Most of Hand Sanitizer

The best way to keep hand sanitizer effective is to rub it between your fingers and all over the backs of your hands just like you would with soap while handwashing. Let it remain on your hands and air dry, especially since toweling off your hands with an unclean towel could undo the sterilization process.

Hand sanitizer may dry out your hands more than soap, so use hand lotion at home to keep your skin as supple as possible. Not only is this important for your comfort, but dry skin may be more susceptible to damage and infection.

Using Disinfecting Wipes

Another potential option for cleaning is disinfecting wipes. Household disinfecting wipes kill bacteria and viruses similarly to hand sanitizer and can be highly effective, but many contain benzalkonium chloride, which is only safe for direct contact in small amounts.

Although using a disinfecting wipe that’s designed for surfaces all over your hands won’t make you sick right away, it could be harmful if used on your skin long-term and could cause allergic reactions. Some hand sanitizers are benzalkonium chloride-based, but they are specifically formulated for hand use to maximize their effectiveness and safety.

These hand sanitizers and handwashing with soap are both safe and effective enough for everyday use all over your hands and forearms. When handwashing is not possible, use hand sanitizer and leave the wipes for cleaning surfaces unless the wipes are specifically labeled for hand use.

Keeping a Supply of Hand Sanitizer

One of the COVID-19 pandemic challenges was a shortage of hand sanitizer and soap due to supply chain interruptions and a spike in consumer demand. It was difficult for hospitals to keep enough on hand.

Whether you’re a small private school or a massive urban hospital, you need a supplier that can keep you stocked in any situation. ICU Production is proud to have a deep understanding of the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and disinfectant market, including hand sanitizers. We can secure the supplies you need to stay running even in the midst of a crisis.

We stock a variety of gowns, gloves, masks, face shields, and other healthcare essentials. For more information about our products, call us on our PPE hotline at (323) 970-2513.