Which is Better: Hand Sanitizer or Hand Washing?

Our generation’s newest great debate: which is better old fashioned handwashing with soap and water or hand sanitizer? With viruses such as COVID-19 roaming around, people are becoming vigilant about protecting themselves from harmful bacteria and germs. Below are the leading guidelines regarding hand sanitizer versus handwashing and how to keep yourself healthy. 

The Bottom Line

You have probably already heard this, but we’ll repeat it: hand sanitizer is okay, but washing your hands is better. So why is that?

Well, hand sanitizer essentially “kills” the majority of microbes that can exist on your hands via an alcohol solution. This means that the bacteria is no longer active and cannot spread, but it’s still going to be on your hands. Meanwhile, using soap and water works differently as it lifts away microbes, dirt, and other substances from your hands, leaving your hands clean of the majority of bacteria.

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But just because you splash a bit of water and soap on your hands does not mean that they have been cleaned properly. Below are the handwashing guidelines from the CDC to help keep you and those around you healthy.

How To Wash Your Hands Effectively 

You’ve probably learned this lesson in kindergarten, but a refresher course never hurt anyone. These steps are based on the guidelines set out by the CDC

  1. With clean running water, either warm or cold, wet your hands 
  2. Apply soap and lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. 
  3. Wash hands for at least 20 seconds.
  4. Rinse your hands.
  5. Dry your hands with a clean towel or let air dry. 
Hand Sanitizer's Effectiveness Against Germs

Is Hand Sanitizer Effective? 

Yes, hand sanitizer can kill germs and bacteria that exist on your hands. However, using hand sanitizer is not the most effective way to get rid of all microbes on your hands. According to the CDC, “alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs.” 

For example, hand sanitizers have shown to be ineffective at killing and eliminating Cryptosporidium, norovirus, and Clostridium difficile. However, hand sanitizer is effective in killing many different types of microbes and is a good line of defense against germs if hand washing is not immediately available. 

While the CDC says that hand sanitizer can be effective, you need to know what you are using to protect yourself against germs. Firstly, you want to make sure that your hand sanitizer contains at least 60% alcohol. Alcohol is the main ingredient that kills bacteria and germs that can live on your hands, so anything below that 60% ratio is deemed ineffective by the CDC.

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Your average brand of pharmacy hand sanitizers will likely meet that 60% alcohol ratio just fine. However, you want to double-check hand sanitizers with the label of “natural,” “organic,” or “gentle.” Although the ingredients may very well be gentler on hands and not dry them out as quickly, they probably do not have the appropriate ratio of alcohol in them. Your best bet is to Google the brand of hand sanitizer you have and see for yourself the concentration of alcohol.

Lastly, (and hopefully, you already know this) under no circumstances should you swallow or ingest hand sanitizer. The high concentration of alcohol can especially be harmful to children if swallowed. Call the CDC in case of emergencies: 800-232-4636

How To Use Hand Sanitizer Properly

Just like there is a proper way to wash your hands, there is also a correct way to use hand sanitizer. The CDC instructs to “apply the product to the palm of one hand and rub the product all over the surfaces of your hands until your hands are dry.” Check on the back of the hand sanitizer bottle to see the recommended amount to use as it changes from manufacturer to manufacturer depending on alcohol concentration. 

Can You Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer at Home? 

You may have noticed that hand sanitizer has become quite the hot commodity. While many DIY hand sanitizer recipes are floating around on the internet at the moment, the World Health Organization has its own, verified method in creating hand sanitizer at home, using ingredients you most likely already have. The WHO hand sanitizer method is in the form of a spray and can be used in the same way as a gel hand sanitizer. With this hand sanitizer method, spray enough to cover hands and rub in until dry.  

Items For WHO Hand Sanitizer 

  • Spray Bottle
  • Funnel 
  • 1 ⅔ Cups of Isopropyl Alcohol
  • 2 Teaspoons of Glycerol
  • 1 Tablespoon of Hydrogen Peroxide
  • ¼ Cup of Distilled Water or Boiled Water that is cooled 

How To Make Hand Sanitizer 

Using the funnel pour 1 ⅔ cups of isopropyl alcohol, 1 tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide, 2 teaspoons of glycerol, and ¼ cup of distilled water into the spray bottle. Gently shake the spray bottle to mix ingredients. Let the solution sit for 72 hours to allow the interior of the spray bottle to be disinfected before use.

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Also, an added note: the glycerol is a humectant, which is a light moisturizer that keeps your hands from becoming dry and cracking from the alcohol solution. If you can’t find glycerol at the moment, you can leave it out of the recipe and be sure to moisturize after use.

Avoiding Bacterial Surfaces

Staying Clean and Staying Healthy

While there is more and more information coming out about COVID-19, it’s essential to stick to the basics when it comes to healthy everyday practices like handwashing and avoiding high-touch surfaces.

What have been your experiences with hand sanitizer and keeping yourself healthy this time of year? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Lesley George

Lesley is a content writer and community manager at Shape.
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