Does Hand Sanitizer *Actually* Work?

By Karla Walsh

By Karla Walsh

You probably know a friend or a co-worker—or maybe it’s you!—who has a baby bottle of Purell in her purse and gym bag, a full-size one at her desk and in her car, a truckload stashed in her basement (thanks, Costco!)…and reaches for a hit after every interaction. #guilty #itsme

And if you didn’t before, you do now that we’re all trying to protect ourselves from the coronavirus. But does alcohol-based sanitizer really fight germs as well as soap? Keep reading for the dirty deets.

RELATED: 4 Ways to Work From Home Without Going Stir Crazy

Hand Sanitizer vs. Soap

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) promotes good hand hygiene as one of the best ways to limit infectious diseases, such as COVID-19 (coronavirus), influenza, and the common cold, not to mention foodborne illnesses like salmonella.

The latest research suggests that plain ol’ soap and water, combined with a proper scrubbing technique, is the most effective way to fight germs, the CDC reports

In fact, hand washing counteracted a flu virus in 30 seconds, while it took hand sanitizer about four minutes to accomplish the same task, according to a study published in the American Society of Microbiology’s journal mSphere. Let that sink in. 

RELATED: Should I DIY My Hand Sanitizer for a More Natural Option?

The rubbing motion and the length of time applied seems to boost soap’s impact, although hand sanitizers made with 60 to 95 percent alcohol can be a solid substitute when a sink, soap, and water aren’t handy. Any less alcohol than that will likely reduce the growth of germs rather than killing them, though, and may only lessen the impact of certain germs, per the CDC. 

How to Wash Your Hands

Your best bet: Wet your hands, lather with soap, scrub all surfaces for 20 seconds, rinse, and dry with a clean towel. You’ll want to do this…

  • Before and after prepping and eating food
  • Before and after treating someone who is sick or caring for wounds
  • After using the restroom, coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose
  • After touching an animal, garbage, or any time your hands look visibly grimy (obvs)

As for the whole hand sanitizer and bacterial resistance thing? Alcohol kills germs “quickly and in a different way than antibiotics,” so they won’t contribute to antibiotic resistance, the CDC says. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shared their official stance in 2019, stating that over-the-counter hand sanitizers are a safe alternative to hand washing, when necessary. The main risk with hand sanitizers—besides not being as effective as water + soap—is the risk of poisoning, say, if a little kid were to drink it.

When hand sanitizer is your best option available, apply the amount specified on the bottle, rub thoroughly all over every surface of your hands until dry, and don’t wipe it off. But again, you’re still better off with a classic soap-water combo whenever you can swing it.

About Karla Walsh
Health, Food, Wine and Relationship Writer + Cooking and Wine Event Host

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