Hand Sanitizer vs. Soap and Water: Which Hand-Washing Method Is Best?

It's time to settle the debate once and for all.

From our cell phones to our kitchen counters, almost all of the surfaces we touch on a daily basis are riddled with germs. It's little surprise, then, that a 2018 report from Allied Market Research projects that the global hand sanitizer industry will reach $1.75 billion—yes, billion with a b—by 2023. Though hand sanitizer is a great on-the-go solution for sanitation, especially with concerns about coronavirus growing, it's important to note the differences between sanitizer and soap. Keep reading to find out the subtle but significant contrasts between using hand sanitizer and washing your hands with soap and water.

The Pros of Hand Sanitizer

Hand sanitizer is an easy, affordable, and practical way to eliminate tiny potential threats in a pinch. In hospital settings—where germs are as ubiquitous as doctors—the product has proven useful for enforcing hygiene amongst medical professionals and patients alike. According to one 2016 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control, one hospital that placed a hand sanitizer dispenser in front of the visitor entrance saw a 528 percent increase in usage in just three weeks.

The hospital isn't the only place where hand sanitizer can play an important role. During flu season especially, keeping sanitizer around the house could mean the difference between falling ill and staying healthy. In one 2014 study published in the journal Food and Environmental Virology, subjects who used hand sanitizer anywhere from one to three times throughout the day were able to effectively avoid getting the virus on their hands, despite the fact that it was near them. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes hand sanitizer (with a minimum of 60 percent alcohol) in its guidelines for preventing contracting the coronavirus—but only when a full wash with soap and water isn't available.

The Cons of Hand Sanitizer

Though hand sanitizer protects against an overwhelming majority of bacteria, there are still some threats that prove too potent for the sanitation product. As the CDC warns, Cryptosporidium, norovirus, and Clostridium difficile are just some of the germs that hand sanitizer can neither inactivate nor remove.

Similarly, the CDC notes in a pamphlet about proper hygiene that hand sanitizer is ineffective when hands are "visibly dirty or greasy" (like after a session in the garden or after cooking a messy dinner in the kitchen). In these situations, rather than eliminating the threat, hand sanitizer will just combine with the gook on your hands and create an even bigger—and equally germ-ridden—mess.

young white man in blue t-shirt and small boy using hand sanitizer on a bench near a beach

The Pros of Soap and Water

There's a reason why people have been washing their hands to prevent the spread of bacteria for centuries: It works. When you take the time to wash your hands properly—not just after you use the restroom, but throughout the day as well—you are ensuring that every time you touch your face or shake someone's hands, you're doing so sans the threat of spreading germs.

So just how effective is washing your hands? Well, when researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine tested soap and water on diarrhea-inducing bacteria in 2011, they found that it reduced the presence of bacteria on subjects' hands to just 8 percent. Comparatively, people who used just water only reduced the bacterial presence to 23 percent.

The Cons of Soap and Water

Of course, one of the biggest cons when it comes to washing your hands is how much time it takes. A proper hand-washing session should take at least 20 seconds—and while this is hardly a lot of time in the scheme of things, it feels like a lifetime when all you're doing is lathering up and rinsing off.

A specific demographic that doesn't do well with hand-washing is children. Naturally, kids are more impatient and don't quite understand the risks associated with germs, so they are much more likely to improperly wash their hands. One 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that while children who used soap and water missed 3.9 percent of school days over an eight-month period (presumably because they were out sick), those who used hand sanitizer only missed 3.25 percent. What's more, the soap-and-water subjects had a 21 percent higher risk of coming down with a respiratory infection compared to the hand sanitizer group. Of course, this is all likely because children aren't cleaning their hands properly, but it's a concern nonetheless.

The Final Verdict

Clearly, both hand sanitizer and soap have their pros and cons—so what's the best way to clean your hands? Ultimately, it's the latter. According to the CDC, the only situation in which sanitizer is the preferred method is in a hospital setting, where doctors and nurses need to keep their hands consistently sterile. Otherwise, you should stick with the tried-and-true method of washing your hands in the sink, since doing so both kills germs and physically removes any dirt and debris that could be harmful.

Additional reporting by Sage Young.

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