There seem to be a lot of strong opinions when it comes to the best hand hygiene method. Some people say that washing your hands with soap and water is better and others passionately vouch for sanitizer, because, as they say, nobody washes their hands properly. But what is actually the best way to clean your hands and protect yourself against germs that can make you sick?
A quick visit to any grocery or department-store reveals that there are a million different kinds of hand sanitizer, many with different fragrances: gels, foams, alcohol-based, “all-natural”. Believe it or not, the type of sanitizer really does matter — or rather, the active ingredient and its concentration.
To get the most out of your sanitizer, it should be between 60–70% ethyl alcohol. Don’t worry, though, because most of the popular brands out these days, like Purell, have 70%. However, when it comes to alcohol-free stuff with “natural” active ingredients, like aloe vera, consensus say that even though they might kill some germs it’s definitely not enough. In order for a sanitizer to be fully effective, it has to reduce a certain amount of microbes from a surface. The best sanitizers reduce the microbes on your hands by 99%.
In short, it doesn't really matter which brand or what kind of hand sanitizer you use on your hands or whether it's gel or foam, as long as it has at least 60% alcohol. Moreover, you should use enough hand sanitizer so that your hands get wet and it takes about 15 to 20 seconds for them to dry, so don’t be afraid to use it.
Hand sanitizer, however, will not kill norovirus, Giardia or the diarrhea-causing bacterium Clostridium Difficile. But if you’re more concerned about cold and flu viruses then you’re good to do, because those are indeed killed by hand sanitizer.
But wait! Are your hands covered in dirt, grime or sticky stuff? Then hand sanitizer will not help you.
In contrast to hand sanitizer, washing your hands removes all the germs and bacteria than the former and also remove those pathogens like norovirus, Giardia, and C. difficile. It is, without a doubt, the best hygiene method because not only does it gets rid of more germs than hand sanitizer, it also eliminates dirt, debris, and grime from your hands.
It is not only the science in the soap formula that reduces and eliminates these germs, but rather the friction of lathering and then rinsing your hands on water. As you now know, soap has been proven to help you clean your hands better than water alone (soap loosens the germs’ ability to grip to the hands, making them easier to rinse away).
If you don’t have access to water or soap and are in need of sanitizing or washing your hands, hand sanitizer is a great option. They’re quick, easy and (pretty much) effective. They are perfect to use on your way out of places where you'd pick up a great deal of germs — like a subway, public or portable toilet, or petting zoo. It also works wonders if you're in a place where you don't have access to clean, running water. But don’t use it too much! Hand sanitizer can excessively dry your hands which can lead to bothersome irritation. Yes, it can kill off the “good bacteria” in your hands, but if you just touch your arms or any part of your body it will repopulate immediately.
We recommend always washing your hands with soap and water, especially after coming into contact with sources of germs. But what actually matters is to remember to wash or sanitize them, with whatever resources you may have at the moment.