Handwashing is one of the best tools for preventing the spread of disease and infection. And while people might know that on an intellectual level, it’s a different story in practice.
One study found that only 31% of men washed up with soap and water after using a public restroom. Another revealed that around 35% of men and 15% of women rinsed with water but ignored the soap.
Lax handwashing practices put you and others at risk of illness. Getting the facts about smart hygiene may provide the motivation you need to develop healthier hand habits.
But which soap should you be using?
The Clear Winner: Soap-and-Water Washing
The best way to remove dirt and germs from your hands is to wash them with soap and water.
Soap holds the key to removing unwanted substances. That’s because the dirt and germs that you touch mix with your skin’s natural oil. Water alone isn’t good at removing oil, but soap forms molecular bonds that break its stubborn adherence to your skin.
Once the oil has been dislodged, it — along with any dirt and germs it contains — rinses easily down the drain.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands with soap and water:
- Before and after a snack or meal
- Before cooking and while preparing food
- After using the restroom or helping others in the bathroom (like changing a diaper)
- After coughing or sneezing into your hands
- While caring for sick people
- After touching animals or things associated with them
- Before and after caring for an open wound
- After touching garbage or other messes
It’s also a good idea to wash your hands after you’ve been out and about. The world is full of dirty stuff, like shopping cart handles. Make a habit of washing up as soon as you get home from an outing.
Regular vs. Antibacterial Soap
Advertisements imply that using antibacterial soap will lead to cleaner hands. But research doesn’t back up that claim.
The goal of handwashing isn’t to kill bacteria and viruses. It’s to lift the microbes from your skin and send them down the drain. There’s no need to exterminate them in the process.
Antibacterial hand or body soaps could actually be more harmful than helpful. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expressed concern that these products expose people to excess chemicals. Also, antibacterial cleansers may contribute to the problem of antibiotic resistance.
The CDC recommends these five steps for handwashing:
- Wet your hands with running water.
- Apply soap and lather it all over your hands, including the fronts, backs and nails.
- Spend at least 20 seconds scrubbing.
- Thoroughly rinse your hands under running water.
- Dry your hands completely.
You might be surprised to learn that hot water isn’t any better at removing germs from your hands than cold water, so choose whatever temperature you find comfortable. Washing with cooler water can save energy and keep your hands in better condition.
Drying is a more important step than you may realize. Wiping your hands with a towel is essential for removing additional microbes that may have been left behind after washing. Also, damp skin is more likely than dry skin to transfer residual germs to door handles and other surfaces that you touch.
In public restrooms, paper towels are one of the most effective and hygienic drying methods. Opt for paper towels over air dryers if you can, since the latter may not be as sanitary. Avoid using your clothing as a towel, too. Research shows that your hands could end up germier than before you washed them.
The Pinch Hitter: Alcohol-based Hand Sanitizer
Soap and water are best, but there are times when a sink is nowhere to be found. When that happens, turn to hand sanitizer instead.
Hand sanitizer works by disinfecting your hands. While the goal of washing with soap and water is to remove germs from your hands, the goal of hand sanitizer is to inactivate them.
It doesn’t take them away, though.
Experts agree that you shouldn’t rely on hand sanitizer as your first line of defense. It’s simply not as effective or reliable as handwashing.
Still, it’s smart to keep hand sanitizer nearby for those times when traditional washing isn’t an option. For example:
- Before and after pumping gas
- Before and after using a keypad at the grocery store
- After coughing or sneezing in public
Using hand sanitizer in such situations can protect both you and others.
How Much Alcohol?
The best hand sanitizers contain alcohol. The CDC doesn’t recommend using sanitizers that aren’t alcohol-based because they may not be as effective at eliminating germs.
Also, not all alcohol sanitizers are created equal.
To work well, alcohol must be the main ingredient in the product. Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) sanitizers should feature at least 60% alcohol. Isopropyl sanitizers need at least 70% alcohol. Higher percentages are acceptable as well.
Limitations of Hand Sanitizer
Alcohol-based sanitizers work best on clean hands. Grease, sweat and visible dirt on your hands may limit how many microbes the sanitizer can eliminate.
After eating, working outside, playing sports or engaging in other activities that can leave your hands a mess, it’s a good idea to wash up with soap and water.
Also, hand sanitizer can’t protect you from unsafe substances that might be on your hands. If you’ve been working with pesticides or other chemicals, for example, be sure to wash under running water before eating or touching your face.
Not all germs are vulnerable to hand sanitizer, either.
Norovirus, which causes stomach illnesses, is one microbe that doesn’t respond well to these products. The bacteria Clostridium difficile, commonly known as C. diff, is another. Handwashing is more effective against these germs.
Also, hand sanitizer doesn’t form a long-lasting barrier of protection. It might kill any additional microbes that you encounter over the next few minutes, but it won’t do much good after that. Be sure to wash or sanitize frequently throughout the day.
How to Use Hand Sanitizer
Rubbing on a quick layer of sanitizer isn’t enough. As with handwashing, you’ve got to apply hand sanitizer with the same attention to detail that you would with soap and water. The CDC recommends the following steps for applying hand sanitizer:
- Squirt the product into the palm of your hand.
- Rub the sanitizer over the fronts and backs of your hands as well as the nail areas.
- Continue rubbing for about 20 seconds, until your hands are thoroughly dry.
Using less than the recommended amount can reduce the effectiveness of sanitizer. Read the product packaging to learn the manufacturer’s recommendation.
Don’t rinse or wipe off the sanitizer before it has finished drying. The sanitizer needs to be in place for about 20 seconds to kill microbes.
Try to use sanitizer in moderation. Since this product is alcohol-based, applying it too frequently could lead to dry, cracked or irritated skin.
Always keep hand sanitizer out of the reach of children. Swallowing hand sanitizer can be harmful.
Above all, whether you choose soap or sanitizer, frequency is key.
Studies show that people who wash 6 to 10 times a day are 36% percent less likely to catch colds. No matter what’s going around, keeping your hands clean could help you mitigate risk. Regular cleansing is one of the best steps you can take to keep yourself and others healthy.