Soap & Water or Hand Sanitizer, Which is Better?

Hand soap vs Hand RubThanks to the team at Savers Bank in Sturbridge for asking this question.

First you have to know what your hand washing goal is. If you can see that your hands are dirty, then it’s no contest, use soap and water. But, if we are talking about cleaning what you can’t see (ie. viruses, bacteria) then we have something to talk about.

The research has a variety of test methods, products types, populations, etc. This results in a variety of outcomes, which is open to interpretation. The World Health Organization, Guideline on Hand Hygiene sums it up nicely.

Let’s look at 3 hand washing/rubbing products that can be found at most stores and compare them:

Plain Soap: Plain soap’s job is to loosen up the soils on hands for you to rinse off. This works great for visibly soiled hands and surprisingly well for germs too.

“Studies conducted in the community setting bring additional findings on the topic of the relative efficacy of different hand hygiene products. Some indicate that medicated and plain soaps are roughly equal in preventing the spread of childhood gastrointestinal and upper respiratory tract infections or impetigo (a contagious skin infection). This suggests that the health benefits from clean hands probably results from the simple removal of potential pathogens by hand washing rather than their in [location] inactivation by medicated soaps.”

-WHO Guideline on Hand Washing in Health Care P. 38 Sec, 11.13

Medicated/Antimicrobial/Antiseptic Soaps: These soaps are supposed to do the work of plain soap, as well as kill whatever germs were not removed. They have been found to be better than plain soap at killing germs, but time and technique played a larger role in testing how effective hand washing can be at removing or killing germs from hands.

Alcohol-based Handrubs: I was personally surprised by these results. Alcohol-based handrub studies showed similar results or better results than any type of soap and water hand washing in reducing the bacterial contamination on hands.

When choosing any type of hand cleaning product, be sure it contains “Humectants” or an ingredient to keep your hands moist. Hand washing can cause dryness or irritation, which can increase bacterial counts on skin. An added moisturizer can decrease this effect.

Bottom Line

The real difference has to do with your technique, more than the product.

1. Wash or rub for at least 30 seconds, getting all 4 parts of your hands.
2. Use at least 3 ml (a little less than a teaspoon) or product
3. Thoroughly dry your hands

Facts from the WHO Guidelines on Hand Hygiene

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