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Soap and Water vs. Hand Sanitizer – Which is Better?

Published on Jun. 01, 2021

As more fully vaccinated people help lead the way to herd immunity with COVID-19, it may be tempting to ease up on some of the daily habits you’ve perfected this past year like keeping your hands clean. Germs are quite literally everywhere, so whatever we touch is bound to make its way on to our hands. Going about your day with clean hands is one of the best ways to prevent infection and further spread of harmful germs. But if you have a choice, which is best:  handwashing or hand sanitizer?

The Benefits of Handwashing with Soap and Water

Soap and water make more than just suds. Together, they work wonders to remove all types of germs from your hands. As it turns out, the 20-second time investment (enough to sing Happy Birthday twice) is worth it, since handwashing can remove not just all germs but other harmful agents like heavy metals and pesticides. Moreover, just plain soap will do the job if you don't have antibacterial soap on hand. In fact, antibacterial soap carries no special benefits when compared to plain soap, according to the CDC. Finally, studies have shown that soap and water is much better than its counterpart at removing certain germs, including Clostridium difficile (aka C. Diff), a life-threatening germ that can damage the colon and even lead to death.

Other Soap Pros:

  • Soap can be used for multi-purposes
  • Any plain soap will do
  • Soap may be easier to locate in a pinch
  • As long as it still lathers, soap is still effective, so you can stock up without worry of expiration 

The Benefits of Hand Sanitizer

While hand sanitizer doesn't fit the bill for effectively removing greasy substances, dirt, and other debris, it can be effective at killing many germs when you're on the go, with a few important caveats:

  • The sanitizer you use must contain at least 60 percent alcohol
  • You must use enough sanitizer to cover the entire surface of your hands
  • You'll need to rub your hands together until they're dry

Another curious fact about hand sanitizer? It's regulated by the FDA, giving it an expiration date of approximately three years. As the alcohol content evaporates, so does the effectiveness. For this reason, smaller bottles may be better, as they help ensure quicker use.

The Winner

Handwashing the "old fashioned" way may requires access to water and a bit more time, but we have to hand the best method award to soap and water for removing germs and other muck that our hands tend to collect throughout the day.

Remember that you don't need a certain temperature for washing with soap and water to work – though do avoid directly touching faucets and door handles, which can be accomplished with a paper towel. Still, don't discount hand sanitizer as a close contender if a sink and soap just aren't available at the moment. There's a strong chance you're still removing many potentially harmful germs!

When to Clean Your Hands

  • After using the bathroom or changing diapers
  • Before and after eating
  • After coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose
  • After using a tissue
  • After caring for a sick loved one
  • After handling garbage
  • After touching or changing a dressing or bandage
  • After touching any object or surface that may be contaminated
  • After touching an animal, cleaning up after a pet, or preparing food for pets