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Washing Hands Properly : Hand Sanitizer vs Soap and Water

Author: Disabled World

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Published: 2020-03-21


Explains the difference between alcohol based hand sanitizer and plain hand soap. Information includes when and how to use each one to wash your hands properly.

Key Points:

Main Digest

According to a joint study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), RTI International and N.C. State University, an estimated 97% of people do not wash their hands properly. That is a big problem since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says one of the most effective ways to protect yourself from coronaviruses is to wash your hands regularly and properly.

Washing your hands with soap and water is part of basic human hygiene and is the single best way to prevent the spread of viral illnesses like colds and the flu, and it is the best way to keep bacteria from entering your body.

What Makes Soap 'Antibacterial'

The difference between hand sanitizer and hand soap is that sanitizer kills germs whereas soap and water washes them off.

Antibacterial soaps (antimicrobial or antiseptic soaps) contain certain chemicals not found in plain soaps. Those ingredients are added to many consumer products with the intent of reducing or preventing bacterial infection. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there isn't enough science to show that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soaps are better at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water. To date, the benefits of using antibacterial hand soap haven't been proven.

In addition, many liquid soaps labeled antibacterial contain triclosan, an ingredient of concern to many environmental, academic and regulatory groups. Animal studies have shown that triclosan alters the way some hormones work in the body and raises potential concerns for the effects of use in humans. Laboratory studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Some data shows this resistance may have a significant impact on the effectiveness of medical treatments, such as antibiotics.

Picture shows hands covered with soap under running water.
Picture shows hands covered with soap under running water.

When Should I Use Plain Soap and Water to Wash My Hands

Cleaning hands at key times is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to those around you.

Using soap to wash hands is more effective than using water alone because the surfactants in soap lift soil and microbes from skin, and people tend to scrub hands more thoroughly when using soap, which further removes germs. The temperature of the water does not appear to affect microbe removal; however, warmer water may cause more skin irritation and is more environmentally costly.

Use plain soap and water to wash hands:

How Do I Wash My Hands with Soap and Water Properly?

Healthcare professionals recommend washing with soap and water over using hand sanitizer, but when soap and water are not available, hand sanitizer is an effective alternative.

When Should You Use Alcohol Based Hand Sanitizer to Clean Your Hands?

The prolific use of hand sanitizers comes with drawbacks. For example, using too much hand sanitizer dries your hands out, and they may begin to crack and bleed. If you happen to have a skin condition like eczema, this could exacerbate it. There has also been reported incidents that cases of dermatitis increased in health care workers following a U.K. hand hygiene drive to reduce infections such as MRSA. In addition, hand sanitizer is efficient at killing some microbes, but not all of them. Here are some germs that it can NOT protect you against:

How Do I Use Alcohol Based Hand Sanitizer Properly?

Do not rinse or wipe off the hand sanitizer before it is dry or it may not work as well against germs.

Alcohol-based sanitizers can also cause alcohol poisoning if more than a couple of mouthfuls are swallowed. Be sure to supervise young children when they use hand sanitizer to prevent swallowing alcohol, especially in schools and childcare facilities.

"Following simple handwashing practices is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infection and illness at home, at school and elsewhere," says Theresa M. Michele, MD, of the FDA's Division of Nonprescription Drug Products. "We can't advise this enough. It's simple, and it works."

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