Hand Sanitizer vs Soap…What is Cleaner?

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.


Which one is better?

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 Man showing dirty hands after gardening work

A man showing his dirty hands after gardening work

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.

4 thoughts on “Hand Sanitizer vs Soap…What is Cleaner?

  1. Stephanie Michelle Friedman

    I think this is an extremely interesting post, considering I have a huge tub of hand sanitizer sitting on my desk in the dorm and the portable kind hanging off my backpack. I feel like every winter I always get sick, I mean it is inevitable but I hate it. I could definitely see how washing hands is so much better because it literally scrubs the germs off, but hand sanitizer is just so much easier. This was definitely a helpful blog post to read with the upcoming flu season and will be sure to only use hand sanitizer as back up and wash my hands way more often than after the bathroom.

  2. Aaron Jacob Harris

    I greatly enjoyed your blog post, Samantha. In my own personal experience, I always feel that my hands are much cleaner if I go the traditional soap and water route. For some strange reason, I feel that hand sanitizer sometime leaves a slightly sticky residue on my hands after I use it and I ultimately want to wash my hands the proper way anyway. I think a follow up experiment of whether or not some alcohol and non-alcohol based hand sanitizers leave a sticky residues on your hands would result in interesting data that might correlate with your findings that soap and water do a better job of cleaning.

  3. Allison C Lightner

    I find your sources quite interesting and the claims that you make different from what I would have thought. You would think that using soap and water is the most effective, but then your sources state that having more alcohol kills more germs. And that makes sense, because when using alcohol on a cut that cleans and heals the wound much faster than using soap and water. The soap is just there to make the skin clean and the sanitizer cleans deeper. I found an article/website that relates to your blog. http://www.berkeleywellness.com/self-care/over-counter-products/article/6-things-know-about-hand-sanitizers

  4. Maddie Panzeri

    This post is a great reminder that we should wash our hands or use hand sanitizer because either option is better than nothing especially when living in a community as large as Penn State. We all wash our hands after using the bathroom (hopefully) but then we must touch the door knob just to leave the bathroom. In order to keep our hands clean I would extend the discussion and suggest that all bathrooms provide paper towels and a wastebasket near the door so that we can open the door with the paper towel to keep our hands clean and then throw the paper towel away. What is the point of washing our hands whether we use hand sanitizer or soap and water (which the post pointed out are both effective) and then having to touch a dirty bathroom door knob?

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