We have all grown up being told to wash our hands. We also know that hand sanitizer is the quicker and better “on-the-go” option. Why would you stand at a sink and sing “Happy Birthday” TWICE when you could get a quick pump of hand sanitizer and be on your way? Personally, I always assumed hand sanitizer was better because it “kills 99.9% of germs”, and soap doesn’t advertise that. I’ve always been curious about which one was better. I figured these blogs posts would give me a reason to do some research.
The CDC has a whole website devoted to teaching people how to wash their hands (I’m sorry but if you don’t know how to wash your hands by now, you’re in trouble. If you need this help, check it out). They claim that washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce germs in most situations, but if soap and water is not available, then a hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol) should be used. This is what most people would have assumed. Don’t worry, there is more!
If you have no soap and water, the CDC recommends to use alcohol based hand sanitizers or wipes. Non-alcohol based hand sanitizers don’t work well for all classes of germs, cause germs to develop resistance, reduce germs instead of killing them, and can even irritate the skin.
While the CDC and the overall consensus was that soap and water does work better than hand sanitizer, many studies show that hand sanitizer does work well (and is time efficient) for hospital settings. This article confirms that in a hospital/traditional office setting, alcohol wipes or hand sanitizer can be just as effective. This setting is where hands come in contact with germs, but hands are not heavily soiled or greasy. Once again, they clarify that “dirty hands” from community settings (handling food, playing sports, working outside, etc) must be effectively cleaned with soap and water.
A randomized, controlled trial wanted to find out if alcohol-based hand sanitizers that are known for killing common respiratory and GI illnesses could reduce illness transmission in the home. The study was done in the homes of 292 families with children enrolled in out-of-home child care throughout 26 child care centers. Overall, it was found that through this study, using alcohol-based hand sanitizers was efficient in reducing transmission of GI illnesses with families in child care. Another study found that the regular use of hand sanitizer could not prevent influenza, but it did reduce total school absences and laboratory-confirmed influenza A infections in children who also had an influenza vaccination.
(If the previous few paragraphs show up larger and bold, I have no clue why this happened. If not, then never mind and ignore this message.)
Other diseases need hand washing over hand sanitizer to prevent the illness. In a study to test the removal of Clostridium difficile, hand washing was found to be more effective.
To conclude overall, wash your hands over using hand sanitizer. During flu season (or what I have heard called the PSU Plague), it wouldn’t hurt to use hand sanitizer for some extra backup and protection. If your hands are clearly soiled and dirty, definitely wash them. If you just want extra cleanliness from touching a possibly germ covered object, you can use hand sanitizer (as long as it has alcohol). Basically, you’ll never know what you will come in contact with. If it happens to be the flu (and you already got your flu shot) or a GI illness, than hand sanitizer will help. But if it’s Clostridium difficile, then you’ll need soap. So play it safe and always wash your hands, and use hand sanitizer occasionally or when you’re on the run.